Pharmacists say they were not consulted on ‘rushed’ Labor-Greens vape deal

<span>Pharmacists are concerned about changes to proposed vaping legislation that Labor has announced after making a deal with the Greens.</span><span>Photograph: Blanchi Costela/Getty Images</span>
Pharmacists are concerned about changes to proposed vaping legislation that Labor has announced after making a deal with the Greens.Photograph: Blanchi Costela/Getty Images

The lobby group representing pharmacy owners said its members were “gobsmacked” by a deal between the Greens and Labor which will see vapes sold over-the-counter by pharmacists without a prescription, claiming they only heard the changes via media release after the deal was done.

But the health minister, Mark Butler, downplayed the concerns of the Pharmacy Guild, saying pharmacies were already selling vapes and reassuring owners that selling vapes under the new model will be a decision for individual stores.

Related: With the Liberals non-committal on vaping, Labor has been driven into the arms of ‘anti-prohibition’ Greens

“This is, I think, a sensible balance between access and serious reform to return this product to its original intention, which was a therapeutic good,” Butler told a press conference in Canberra on Tuesday.

“Pharmacies have been selling vapes for some considerable time and it was always proposed that they will continue to sell vapes under the reform the government has put together.”

The guild’s vice-president, Anthony Tassone, claimed they had not been brought into discussions.

“We were gobsmacked, and after picking our jaws from the floor, we questioned why we were not involved in the conversation on this very, very important issue,” Tassone said.

“Nobody wants vapes in the hands of kids or teenagers, but this is rushed policy on the run. These are not therapeutic products – we don’t know the long-term effects of these products on health and safety.

“How can a pharmacist make an informed decision of its clinical appropriateness? We weren’t asked, consumers didn’t ask for it, patients didn’t ask for this.”

But Butler said the government had raised the option last year, and noted the guild did not make a submission or attend hearings of a Senate inquiry into vaping regulations.

“I don’t accept that this has not been an option very clearly on the agenda for a considerable period of time,” he said.

“Pharmacists right around the country for a considerable period of time have been having careful, professional discussions with their customers about smoking cessation support. They do that now, they’ve done it for a very long time. This is an additional tool in the toolkit for smoking cessation.”

Asked if pharmacists would be forced to stock vapes, Butler said it will be a decision for individual pharmacies and would not be directed by the government.

Also on Tuesday, the Coalition announced its alternate vaping policy, outlining a tax-and-regulate scheme similar to that for tobacco which would make vapes available from locations like service stations or convenience stores. The opposition also pledged $250m for enforcement against black market trade, including illegal imports.

The shadow health minister, Anne Ruston, claimed the government’s plan could see vape users still access the black market, an issue the Coalition believed would be alleviated by expanding regulated access.

The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia is the peak body for practising pharmacists and its national president, Associate Prof Fei Sim, said members also supported the original legislation.

She said the amendment “undermines the role of pharmacists as health care professionals”.

“The amendment – if it was to pass the Senate in its current form – asks pharmacists to prescribe unapproved, unregulated, untested vaping products to the public. This would not represent a health model.”

The government relaxed parts of its plans after a deal with the Greens guaranteed the bill would pass the Senate this week. The Greens’ leader, Adam Bandt, told Radio National his party was concerned about striking a balance between cracking down on access to vapes – especially among children – and not criminalising users.

“[The new law] goes a very long way to removing the ready availability for children and the marketing to children … adults won’t face criminal penalties but would be able to go to the chemist to purchase their vapes but it’ll now be regulated and you’ll know what’s in the vapes,” he said.

“Having to send adults to the GP, to get it under the original proposal, would have, in our view, been a closer step toward the prohibition model.”

The Australian Medical Association’s president, Prof Steve Robson, said it was a “sensible” compromise that pharmacists would need to discuss health options with purchasers, saying the AMA strongly backed the plan to limit access to pharmacies.

Robson accused the Pharmacy Guild of “whining about helping young Australians” with their complaints.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has for months been preparing GPs for a prescription model, including issuing them with clinical guidance on prescribing.

“In our ideal model we would get rid of vaping completely,” said the RACGP’s president, Dr Nicole Higgins. “But being pragmatic, what we need to do is keep it out of our children’s hands.

“And if pharmacists want to step into that increasing role of managing medical conditions, smoking and nicotine cessation are important public health issues.”

She said GPs would continue to offer vaping and smoking cessation support for those patients who needed it.

Felicity McNeill, of patient and disability advocacy group Better Access Australia, was concerned the new system would send “a message to our kids that these unregulated and unproven products are safe healthcare treatments”.

Associate Prof Emily Stockings, from the the Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney, said the amended bill was unlikely to stem the supply to children.