The kings and queens of the vape underground

Date:

Australia’s ban on nicotine-based vapes has been exposed as a ‘laughing stock’ as Uber drivers cash in by selling e-cigarettes in blinged-up cars.

Daily Mail Australia can reveal how ride share drivers have been exploiting services like Uber to make a quick buck out of passengers – in some cases making $50 per stick.

Images taken from inside vehicles in Sydney and Brisbane show ads for e-cigarettes openly displayed in the back of vehicles next to Covid QR codes, with drivers opening glove boxes to show dozens of vapes of all different strengths, flavours and puff counts.

Instagram and TikTok accounts have also been set up calling themselves ‘UberVapes’, offering customers ‘free delivery’ for the purchase of illegal devices.

A black market for vapes and e-cigarettes took off after the federal government announced in October it was banning the importation and sale of nicotine-based vapes over concerns about the chemicals used in the products.

Since October 1 a prescription from a GP has been required to legally import and purchase e-cigarettes.

The decision was widely scrutinised at the time, with experts suggesting it will do little to stop the extensive use of vapes in Australia.

Theo Foukkare, the CEO of the Australian Association of Convenience Stores (AACC), said the government policy had become a ‘laughing stock’ with the banned items now easily available for sale in Ubers and online.

An Uber user revealed he recently got into a ride share where the driver immediately offered him a range of nicotine-based vapes.

‘He had a light on saying vapes available here, they just store them in the glove box,’ the man, who wished to remain anonymous, told Daily Mail Australia.

‘He opened it up – it’s happened to me a few times in Ubers – and they’ve got 30 odd vapes or so.’

An Uber passenger, who took photos of two separate drivers selling vapes, said one produced fraudulent documentation while promising the e-cigarettes were nicotine-based.

‘Some carry a customs important letter from whoever they get it from, which says they don’t contain nicotine,’ the passenger said.

‘But the driver tells you they absolutely do. They’re just covering themselves.’

Black market vendors are also harnessing the power of social media to connect with customers, with Instagram, Facebook Marketplace and TikTok the platforms of choice.

Daily Mail Australia has seen dozens of pages that offer free delivery around Australia’s capital cities of illegal vapes.

One page, called UberVapes, has ripped off the ride share company’s logo, showing smoke coming out of a truck with similar font and colouring.

TikTok videos show hundreds of vapes available for free delivery, with warning labels clearly displayed on the products.

Foukkare said the illegal sale of nicotine-based vapes is a ‘catastrophic failure by the government’.

‘The federal government may think it’s being tough on vaping but just looking around on the streets and on the internet, the government’s policy is a laughing stock,’ Mr Foukkare said.

‘This is a catastrophic failure of regulation. Dodgy retailers are selling vapes all over the place, including places where it’s easy for kids to buy them. You can go online and find a whole universe of vaping products on offer, many of them containing nicotine and clearly marketed at young people.

‘And now Uber drivers are selling them on the side. I’ve seen a lot of things in my retailing career but seeing a cab driver advertising vapes with a neon sign on the dashboard is taking things to a new level of chaos.’

The AACC chairman said vapes are being sold in everything from fruit shops to butchers, with vendors looking to fill the void left by the new laws.

‘These are the people selling to kids. Uber is just another example of the accessibility which we feel shouldn’t be happening,’ Mr Foukkare said.

‘You can’t buy cigarettes on Uber Eats so you shouldn’t be able to buy a nicotine vape when you’re driving in the car.’

There are about 700,000 vapers in Australia, making it one of the most lucrative markets for manufacturers and distributors in the world.

Mr Foukkare is calling on the federal government to allow the products to be sold legally under a ‘heavily regulated model’ that will ensure black market vendors are unable to distribute the products to teenagers.

‘It is our strong view that this is a result of the federal government’s heavy-handed, prescription-only regime for buying nicotine vaping products. Excessive regulation drives things underground,’ he said.

‘The black market is exploding as a result of the prescription policy. And a thriving black market makes it easy for kids to access the products – the suppliers are clever marketers and they sell them in lots of different ways, including now it seems in Ubers.

He said convenience store owners are constantly telling him they have customers entering looking for the nicotine-based vapes, saying they are easily available via black market means.

‘Responsible retailers around Australia are ready to play their part in this. Kids should not be vaping. But adults want to, often instead of smoking cigarettes,’ the AACC chairman told Daily Mail Australia.’

‘The black market genie is out of the bottle. It’s too big to police already. If you want to get rid of it you need to make nicotine vaping products available for sale in normal shops, and people should need to show ID. That way any selling of nicotine vaping products will be clearly illegal.

‘Customers are walking into our members’ stores and asking about nicotine vaping products. Where do you think they are going when we have to turn them away? They’re going straight to the internet, or maybe jumping into an Uber.’

Daily Mail Australia has contacted Uber for comment on its service being abused for illegal vape sales.

Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office has also been contacted over the emergence of Australia’s black market for e-cigarettes.

Read full article here.

Sam McPhee – Daily Mail Australia – 2022-02-06.

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