What are electronic cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes work by delivering nicotine and/or other chemicals to the user via an aerosol vapour. The devices are designed to simulate the act of smoking tobacco cigarettes but do not involve the burning of tobacco. Non-nicotine products are also available and many brands (both nicotine and non-nicotine) come in fruit, confectionary and other flavours. A range of names are used to describe the products, including electronic nicotine delivery systems (or ‘ENDS’), e-shisha, e-cigars, e-pipes, e-Hookas, hookah-pens, vape-pipes and e-cigs.

Are electronic cigarettes legal?

Under Victorian poisons laws, the sale, possession and use of nicotine in the form of an electronic cigarette is currently against the law. The only way that people can lawfully buy and use electronic cigarettes containing nicotine is by importing them for personal use under the Therapeutic Goods Administration personal importation scheme, which requires  a medical prescription. Without a medical prescription, importing electronic cigarettes or refill vials that contain nicotine (including by ordering them online) is against the law in every state and territory in Australia and so is the possession and use of those products. This is because nicotine that has not been medically prescribed is considered a ‘dangerous poison’ under drugs and poisons laws.

There are also electronic cigarettes that do not contain nicotine. These products can be sold in retail stores so long as the manufacturers do not make ‘therapeutic’ claims – for example, claims that the products can help people quit smoking. Only products that have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration can be marketed as quitting aids. So far, no electronic cigarette has received approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration.  

Laws in other states and territories might differ to laws in Victoria.  For example, some states (Western Australia and South Australia) specifically prohibit the sale of products that are designed to resemble/ resemble tobacco products, meaning that it will be against the law in those states to sell many non-nicotine electronic cigarettes.

There are currently no bans on selling such products in Victoria. However, on 25 May 2016 the Tobacco Amendment Bill 2016 was introduced into parliament. The Bill contains a number of proposed changes to the Tobacco Act 1987, including:

  1. a ban on the sale of all electronic cigarettes to people under the age of 18;
  2. a ban the use of electronic cigarettes in all smokefree areas; and
  3. restrictions on advertising and promotion of electronic cigarette products.

If passed by parliament, the proposed new laws will come into effect on 1 August 2017.

For further information about the proposed new laws, see the Victorian Department of Health website on Tobacco Reforms.

For more information on electronic cigarettes generally, visit the Victorian Department of Health and the Therapeutic Goods Administration websites.

For more information on controls on importation of electronic cigarettes that contain nicotine, see the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s statement.

For more detailed information on laws that apply to electronic cigarettes, see our information sheet: Legal status of electronic cigarettes in Australia.

Are electronic cigarettes safe?

Electronic cigarettes are likely to be less harmful than cigarettes, but the short and long-term health impacts of using electronic cigarettes remain unknown. Products involving delivery of chemicals to the lung are normally only approved after extensive evaluation on safety and efficacy. This process also ensures that products come with specific instructions on safe use.  

Products currently on the market in Australia have not passed through this process and so their safety cannot be guaranteed.  

Research on electronic cigarette safety and their use as quitting aids is continuing to evolve and we will monitor developments and update this information accordingly.

Can electronic cigarettes help with quitting smoking?

No electronic cigarette product has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration as an aid to help with quitting smoking. There is limited independent research into whether electronic cigarettes are effective as quitting aids and because electronic cigarettes vary in terms of ingredients and designs, findings on one type of electronic cigarette cannot be said to apply to other types. While there are anecdotal claims of electronic cigarettes being used as an aid to quitting, there are also reports of users increasing their nicotine addiction and dual use (of both electronic cigarettes and smoked tobacco).  

There are many quitting aids which are approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration that are safe to use and are shown to increase long-term quitting rates. These include patches, gum, lozenges, mouth spray and inhalators, as well as stop-smoking medications such as Champix or Zyban. Some of these products can be accessed at a reduced price with a doctor’s prescription.

Sales to children

It is not against the law to sell non-nicotine electronic cigarettes to children in Victoria. This is of significant concern, given that the products are designed to mimic the act of smoking, have not been properly evaluated for safety and are clearly promoted to young people, with their fruit, confectionary and energy drink flavours. As noted above, some states (Western Australia and South Australia) specifically ban products that are designed to resemble or resemble tobacco products. Also, tobacco control laws in Queensland and New South Wales ban sales of e-cigarettes to children. A ban on the sale of all non-nicotine electronic cigarette products to both adults and children (apart from those that have been approved as safe and effective as quitting aids by the TGA) is the best way to prevent youth access to potentially harmful products. 

As noted above, the Victorian government has recently proposed new laws which would ban the sale of all e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18. For more information on the proposed new laws, see Victorian Department of Health website on Tobacco Reforms.

Can I prohibit the use of electronic cigarettes in the workplace?

Employers may wish to implement a policy prohibiting the use of electronic cigarettes at the workplace because:

  • possession and use of electronic cigarettes that contain nicotine is against the law
  • electronic cigarette products of poor design can be dangerous because nicotine is a poison that can be lethal in small doses. Further, there have been multiple reports of electronic cigarettes “blowing up” while on charge, causing serious injuries and property damage
  • electronic cigarette vapour could have negative health impacts on people exposed second-hand
  • use in workplaces could make quitting efforts of other smokers more difficult because observing the use of electronic cigarettes by others, which closely mimics the use of tobacco cigarettes, could elicit cravings.

See our information sheet: Electronic cigarettes in workplaces.

Other issues

In addition to potential short and long-term health effects and the fact that the products can be lawfully sold to children, other issues of concern include:

  • many current marketing strategies inappropriately target young people, make unsubstantiated claims about benefits and/or safe use and are potentially misleading
  • glamorised marketing and public use of the products could renormalise and re-glamorise smoking behaviours, particularly among young people
  • electronic cigarette use is growing at a significant rate globally, particularly among young people
  • major tobacco companies now own and promote major electronic cigarette brands. The tobacco industry has a vested interested in continuing to promote smoking behaviour and products and has a significant history in deceiving consumers.

We will continue to monitor research on electronic cigarettes and will update our information accordingly. 

Cancer Council Australia & the National Heart Foundation Australia position statement

Research relevant to the potential impacts of electronic cigarettes on public health is continuing to evolve including in areas such as safety of the product, cessation efficacy and trends in awareness and use. However, Cancer Council Australia and the Heart Foundation Australia believe that based on past experience in tobacco control and early research on electronic cigarettes, there is sufficient information to act on three particular regulatory gaps in order to prevent uptake and use of electronic cigarettes by young people and other risks to public health:

  1. Restricting the retail sale of non-nicotine electronic cigarettes. It is currently unlawful to sell electronic cigarettes that contain nicotine without approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration. This restriction should also apply to non-nicotine electronic cigarettes, which come in a variety of fruit, confectionery and other flavours that appeal to children. Laws in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland prohibit the sale of products that resemble tobacco products. There are no such laws in other states and territories, meaning that non-nicotine electronic cigarettes (when marketed without therapeutic claims) can be lawfully sold, including to young people.
  2. Ensuring smoke-free laws in each state and territory cover electronic cigarette use. The purchase, possession or use of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine is currently unlawful under state and territory poisons and public health laws. However, these laws are complicated and difficult to enforce. Prohibiting use of all electronic cigarettes under smoke-free laws would make the law clear for the community and ensure that both nicotine and non-nicotine electronic cigarettes are not used in places where smoking tobacco is prohibited.
  3. Prohibiting advertising and promotion of electronic cigarettes, consistent with tobacco advertising prohibitions. Electronic cigarettes are being aggressively promoted, with young people and children clearly identified as a target market. Electronic cigarette advertising should be subject to similar restrictions as tobacco products.

This position is supported by Quit Victoria and Cancer Council Victoria.

Read the full position statement here: Position Statement – Electronic Cigarettes.