The owner of one of Australia’s biggest vaping stores has warned that stopping the importation of liquid nicotine would force reformed smokers onto a dangerous black market.
Max Fichkin, who runs The Steamery in Sydney, said vapers were already stockpiling litres of nicotine ahead of a July 1 ban on sourcing the drug from overseas.
‘What I’m hearing is that every single retailer of nicotine in New Zealand – which is the quickest way to get it into Australia – is officially sold out,’ Mr Fichkin said.
‘There are people that are buying it by the litres in response to what the government has done.’
Health Minister Greg Hunt made a last minute ban to delay until 2021 a ban on importing nicotine with threats of $220,000 fines that was set to be implemented from July 1.
The owner of one of Australia’s biggest vaping stores has warned stopping the importation of nicotine would force reformed smokers onto a dangerous black market. Shop assistant Kevin Ta is pictured vaping at The Steamery vape lounge in Sydney behind a selection of devices
Max Fichkin, who runs The Steamery, said vapers were already stockpiling litres of nicotine ahead of a July 1 ban on sourcing the drug from overseas. The ban was delayed at the last minute. Mr Fichkin is pictured above
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced this month the Australian Border Force would enforce a ban on importing nicotine with threats of $220,000 fines, which is now set to come into effect in 2021. Customers at The Steamery are pictured sitting at a tasting bar to experiment with flavours to inhale from devices
Mr Hunt said the ban would reduce the risk to public health through addiction to nicotine and nicotine poisoning.
The move is supported by health bodies including the Cancer Council, Heart Foundation and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
But on Friday Mr Hunt said there was a ‘group of people who have been using these e-cigarettes with nicotine as a means to ending their cigarette smoking’.
‘In order to assist this group in continuing to end that addiction we will therefore provide further time for implementation of the change by establishing a streamlined process for patients obtaining prescriptions through their GP,’ the statement said.
‘This will give patients time to talk with the GP, discuss the best way to give up smoking, such as using other products including patches or sprays, and if still required, will be able to gain a prescription.’
Vapers are already required to have a prescription from a doctor to import nicotine as an aid to stop smoking but the law was largely being ignored.
Mr Fichkin said prohibiting former smokers from obtaining nicotine to vape would force many of them back onto cigarettes.
It would also discourage those smokers who had unsuccessfully tried other nicotine replacement therapies such as patches and gum from kicking the habit.
‘I think this very much is a death sentence for current smokers that are trying to quit,’ Mr Fichkin said. ‘It’s a death sentence for smokers who have failed all approved NRTs.’
Under the new regime, individuals would need to visit a doctor for a prescription to purchase their nicotine but would still be prohibited from buying the drug themselves.
The nicotine would have to be imported by doctors or medical suppliers via a courier or cargo service with express permission from the Department of Health.
Mr Hunt said the ban would reduce the risk to public health through addiction to nicotine and nicotine poisoning. Vaping devices come in a huge range of styles, shapes and finishes
Vapers are already required to have a prescription from a doctor to import nicotine as an aid to stop smoking. The Steamery is one of about 30 vaping stores in Sydney. First-timers seeking advice start at the shop’s help desk pictured above
Mr Fichkin said prohibiting former smokers from obtaining nicotine to vape would force many of them back onto cigarettes. The Steamery’s Kevin Ta is pictured attempting to make a ‘tornado’ – a spinning plume of vapour – as his colleague Maddy May watches on
Mr Fichkin said it was already difficult to find a doctor to prescribe nicotine and the new system simply would not work.
‘That’s the first hurdle – trying to find a doctor that is willing to prescribe and is willing to support this alternative to smoking,’ he said.
‘But on top of that, to find a supplier here in Australia is near impossible.’
Mr Fichkin said the current system, under which the government had effectively turned a blind eye to the importation of nicotine, was not ideal but imposing fines would cause more harm.
‘The grey area of importation of nicotine is that nicotine could be imported for personal use for up to three months’ supply on the condition that you have a prescription,’ he said.
‘Because until now that has not necessarily been enforced actively, people have simply been importing predominantly without a prescription.
‘That’s obviously not ideal but what’s even worse is that most doctors will not prescribe it, or don’t know how to prescribe it, or don’t know if they’re allowed to prescribe it.’
Passionfruit, apricot, blueberry, watermelon, mango, peach and lime are among the flavours of ‘e-juice’ available to vapers
Vaping devices are not visibly for sale until a customer asks to see the range, when a light switch is flicked to illuminate a case
Mr Fichkin said prohibiting drugs did not stop people using them.
‘It just doesn’t work and historically it’s been proven that a prohibition approach to these issues does not fix the problem.
‘Taking a customer’s choice away forces them to make decisions that they should not have to make to begin with.
‘Taking someone’s choice away only makes the situation worse. Vapers will be forced to have to break the law and look at black market means to source nicotine.
‘This means sourcing a product from a completely unregulated, uncontrolled supplier, where the risks are far greater.’
Under the current system, vapers could at least usually be confident they were getting what they wanted.
‘These nicotine products are coming from countries where the product is being regulated,’ Mr Fichkin said.
‘So they’re being sent to us from a regulated standard. It’s far better than not knowing where you’re going to get it on the black market.’
The Steamery vaping lounge features mood lighting, couches, arm chairs and rugs on a wooden floor; pictured is bartender Maddy May
The range of e-juice flavours is enormous; this touch-screen shows apple, coconut, lychee, melon, mango, grape and cherry
Vapers would no longer believe being caught with nicotine without a prescription was worth the risk, Mr Fichkin said.
‘They’ll either go back to smoking or they’ll find a mate who can get them some nicotine, not knowing exactly what’s in the bottle to begin with.
‘Because it’s illegal they don’t want to be stating on the bottle what the product actually is. So that’s the risk.’
Countries including New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom are encouraging smokers to use vaping as an alternative to cigarettes.
Mr Fichkin said there was strong evidence from those jurisdictions which allowed liquid nicotine sales that vaping was an effective means to quit smoking.
‘No one is saying that vaping is safe,’ he said. ‘But it’s safer than smoking. That’s why vape shops exist – to help people get off bungers.
‘And that is the biggest concern – that those who have successfully quit smoking through vaping may have no other option than to go back to smoking.
‘It’s not only the 300,000 vapers that are going to lose out on this it’s all the smokers in the country.
A first time customer who approaches the front counter of The Steamery is initially asked if they are a cigarette smoker
This customer came into The Steamery with half a packet of cigarettes and left with a vaping device which cost him $79.99
‘We’re losing over 20,000 people to smoking-related illnesses every year. It’s those people that need the help the most.
‘Smokers looking for a safer alternative are going to assume based on this prohibitionist approach that vaping is actually worse than cigarettes.’
The Steamery, at Beaconsfield, bills itself as ‘Sydney’s Premier Vape Lounge’ and is home to what Mr Fichkin calls a ‘community’ of vapers who are forced to navigate unfair laws.
Daily Mail Australia first visited The Steamery two years ago and was greeted by a sign warning that anyone entering must be at least 18 years old. Frosted glass meant no one could see in or out the windows.
The vapers who visit The Steamery are among the estimated 300,000 Australians who use e-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that heat a liquid solution into an aerosol which is inhaled and exhaled.
Some customers source their own liquid nicotine from overseas and independently add it to the flavoured ‘e-juice’ the business sells.
Vaping devices have come a long way since the earliest models which were simple machines that looked like cigarettes
It is an offence in every Australian state and territory to manufacture, sell or supply nicotine, which is scheduled as a ‘dangerous poison’.
Meanwhile, smokers over 18 can freely buy cigarettes and other tobacco products which cause cancer.
Everything that goes on at The Steamery is legal butt to keep it that way Mr Fichkin has had to try to stay one step ahead of sudden regulatory changes.
Vaping devices cannot be openly displayed and are only revealed when a potential customer specifically asks to see one. Other quit-smoking aids such as nicotine patches, lozenges and gum sold by chemists face no similar restrictions.
Even products such as batteries and battery chargers must be hidden, yet nearby electronic stores sell the same accessories without those rules.
The Steamery features a tasting bar where customers can try a dizzying array of flavoured ‘e-juices’. There are couches, arm chairs and rugs on the wooden floor.
Bartender Maddy May at the tasting counter where a touch-screen terminal allows customers to pick their ‘e-juice’ flavours
The range of flavours used in vaping devices includes vanilla cupcake, banana milkshake, cheese cake and peanut butter
Like most of his clientele, Mr Fichkin once smoked. ‘There’re not a single vape shop that I know of that isn’t owned by an ex-smoker,’ he said.
Mr Fichkin was working in finance and his wife in insurance when they decided to turn their new passion into a business.
They began at Parklea and Flemington markets and the business grew to a point where they had enough stock and customers to open their own store. The Steamery opened in 2014.
A first time customer who approaches the front counter of The Steamery is initially asked if they are a smoker, how much tobacco they smoke and what strength they need.
The customer would then reveal whether they were a ‘mouth to lung’ smoker or ‘direct to lung’ smoker. What type of ‘throat hit’ – the feeling of inhalation – the customer prefers is sought.
The kind of device the customer wants comes down to personal taste and what is practical for them, Mr Fichkin said. The language varies widely but there are regulated mods, mech mods, pens, drippers and more.
Once a customer has chosen a device they will be taken to the taste bar to find an e-juice flavour that suits them. Most start with a tobacoo flavour but the options are immense.
Vaping is legal in Australia but it is not legal to possess nicotine; Kevin Ta is pictured vaping flavoured e-juice without nicotine
The Steamery’s owner Max Fichkin says almost no one walks into his business without research or hearing about it first
A touch-screen terminal also lists fruit, nuts, coffee, dessert, breakfast, candy, drink and menthol flavours. Each of those categories can be further broken down.
Flavours include caramelised banana, fresh lime and lemon tart as well as ‘drop bear’, ‘gecko sludge’ and ‘fairy fart’.
A tradie wearing a high-visibility shirt who wanted to buy his first atomiser was in and out of the shop within 20 minutes when Daily Mail Australia visited.
He came into the store with half a pack of cigarettes and left with a $79.99 vaping device.
‘As soon as I walk out of her I’m gonna through ’em out,’ he said of his remaining smokes. ‘This’ll be the best 80 bucks I’ll ever spend.’
Ross Cameron came into the store to pick up some e-juice as his online supply had run out.
He described himself as a ‘hopeless smoker’ until he discovered vaping.
‘I couldn’t give up,’ Mr Cameron said. ‘Tried all the drugs. Tried all the therapies. In the end I just hated it. Hated lighting up. Hated the smell of it. Hated the smoke.
The Steamery has had to introduce a nominal fee to use its bar tasting service to comply with government regulations
‘For me it’s a way to stay away from smoking. I’m not particularly concerned if it’s hip or cool. If I didn’t stop it was going to kill me.’
Two years ago The Steamery was one of about eight vaping stores in Sydney. Today, according to Mr Michkin, there are about 30, with 15 more online retailers.
Mr Fichkin said enforcing the ban on importing nicotine would kill of small business and lead to job losses in an economy already depressed by coronavirus.
‘There will be business that will disappear. There will be businesses that will shrink.’
Mr Fichkin hoped the ban will be overturned but believed The Steamery was big enough to continue trading.
‘We have plans in place to adjust to future environments if need be,’ he said. ‘Some of the smaller places may not be big enough to adjust themselves to survive.’
A revolt by Coalition backbenchers saw 28 MPs sign a letter condemning the nicotine restrictions before Mr Hunt delayed the ban.
There is no suggestion that any of the persons shown in this article have engaged in anything other than legal vaping activities.