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Border force staff diverted from illegal importations of guns and drugs to manage vape influx

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Kimberley CainesThe West Australian
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Border force staff are having to spend time and money seizing every illegal vape — and storing them — raising concerns workers are being taken away from more pressing jobs. 
Camera IconBorder force staff are having to spend time and money seizing every illegal vape — and storing them — raising concerns workers are being taken away from more pressing jobs.  Credit: Supplied

A dramatic influx of illegal vapes into Australia is distracting border force officials from stopping guns and illicit drugs from entering the country.

And the inundation of vapes has led the Australian Border Force to call out for more workers to fulfil the Federal Government’s demands of detecting, storing and disposing of every illegal e-cigarette.

The West Australian understands the high volume of vapes being imported has taken up border force staff’s time because they are required to refer e-cigarettes without a prescription to the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Sources aware of the process say it is time-consuming and is diverting workers away from other priorities such as seizing smuggled weapons and drugs.

Limited and costly transport and storage capacity has created further issues as the agency is required to hold the products while a decision is being made by the TGA. The products are either then destroyed or released to the owner after samples are tested.

Destroying vapes is also more complicated and costly than other illegal goods due to being plastic and containing chemicals.

New regulations came into place under the Morrison Government in 2021 where any nicotine product hitting Australian shores without a prescription from a local doctor is seized and referred to the TGA for laboratory analysis to see if it contains nicotine.

The Albanese Government has gone a step further — last month announcing a plan to ban imports of recreational vapes at the border, which means those that do not contain nicotine, in the hope it will stamp out the black market.

A Border Force spokesman told The West the organisation required more staff with the calls coming before the new reforms have been implemented.

“As with any legislative change, an alteration to border controls will have a significant impact to ABF frontline resources and will require an uplift in our capability and capacity to detect, store and dispose of products containing nicotine safely,” the spokesman said.

“As nicotine vaping products are not currently prohibited at the border under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956, the ABF is working closely with the TGA on how we would operationalise the prohibition of vapes at the border.”

A TGA spokesman admitted Border Force was facing challenges with the new vaping laws.

“Challenges arranging the destruction of nicotine-containing vaping products like disposable devices are not unique. Not all facilities can appropriately disassemble and destroy the components separately,” the spokesman said.

“Agencies are working together to identify solutions to this challenge.”

This month, The West reported that an illegally imported vape is being confiscated every 37 seconds at the border — 349,617 between January and May, compared to 494,894 for the total of last year — with “many more” still awaiting a determination by the TGA.

NSW Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes, who is an advocate for vaping as a tool to quit cigarette smoking, has described the border process as “hugely concerning”.

“When you are diverting the attention of the agency that’s literally responsible for keeping our borders safe, it is absolutely alarming that a blueberry vape is going to take priority over someone bringing guns into this country,” Senator Hughes told The West.

The Commonwealth included $234 million in last month’s Federal Budget to tighten vaping measures in a bid to prevent a new generation of nicotine addicts by bringing in plain packaging and banning flavours to make the products less attractive to users.

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