I pace the sidewalk of a dead-end street in Sydney’s mid-west.
The sky is overcast and it’s starting to rain when my phone rings.
“Hi, I’m in a minute,” said a voice on the other end of the line.
I watch a white sedan turn down the street.
“OK, I’m down with a black jacket,” I told him.
The car stops and I walk to the driver’s side window.
A young man hands me a plastic bag and I give him the money. The whole exchange takes about 30 seconds.
It was as sleazy as it sounds, but that’s how kids in Australia get their hands on illicit nicotine vapes.
“I don’t want to be like a huge snitch, but it’s actually super easy,” 17-year-old Ruby told Four Corners.
“There are a lot of small dealers doing local activities and stuff.
“You go to your phone, you’re like, ‘Can I have a vape?’ and they’re like, “20 minutes.” And you meet them somewhere and they give it to you.
“I think it’s like any other drug. It’s definitely word of mouth.
“All social media too.”
Ruby struggles with a nicotine addiction that began three years ago.
“It’s the last thing you do before you fall asleep. It’s the first thing you do when you wake up. Sometimes you wake up multiple times during the night to hit it,” she said .
“It’s totally close to your heart and it’s the only thing on your mind.”
Booming black market
Vaping is a multi-billion dollar global industry. It is estimated that around 400,000 people currently vape in Australia.
In New South Wales alone, a tenth of the population aged 16-24 now vapes – that number has more than doubled in the space of a year.
This is despite the fact that it is illegal to sell or possess nicotine vapes without a prescription.
A Four Corners investigation found there is a thriving black market, fueled by growing demand and a failure to enforce the rules.
Teenagers buy cheap disposable vapes imported from factories in China.
We’ve found that illicit social media sales are rampant, with hundreds of vendors to choose from across Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok.
Many of these dealers use code words and images to illegally sell their products to children and they offer free shipping.
Professor of epidemiology and public health at the Australian National University, Emily Banks said vaping is harmful to health, especially for non-smokers and young people.
“They are addictive. They can cause poisoning and toxicity when inhaled, which can lead to seizures, trauma and burns, lung damage,” she said.
The federal government has commissioned Professor Banks and his team to investigate the harms of e-cigarettes. Its report, released earlier this year, is the most comprehensive review of global evidence to date.
“When it comes to addiction in children, e-cigarettes can actually be more dangerous than cigarettes because they’re much easier to get to, they’re much more discreet, you can hide them, and they also have these multiple flavors so they’re much more appealing to kids and they’re marketed to kids,” she said.
“Using e-cigarettes in this younger age group is not about quitting smoking. It’s a completely new habit.”
State and federal authorities are targeting the illicit vaping market.
NSW Health has raided tobacconists, seizing more than $1 million worth of stock since January.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has also issued fines to individuals and online vendors.
Despite this, the illegal market is still booming.
“It’s a de facto ban,” vaping advocate Dr. Colin Mendelsohn told Four Corners.
“Every month, millions of unregulated illicit vapes are imported into Australia.
“A black market will sell to young people, they will sell questionable products and they will sell them at a huge profit.”
Four Corners investigated the online trade in Chinese-made disposable vapes, including a website that presented itself as a major Australian distributor of the popular Gunnpod brand.
Gunnpod Australia claimed to supply major tobacconists and sell to customers online.
Four Corners ordered Gunnpod vapes and had them delivered. We also bought the brand from four of the tobacconist chains listed on the website – Free Choice, Cignall, TSG and King of the Pack.
None of these vapes listed the key ingredient – nicotine – on the packaging.
We took the devices to the University of Wollongong to confirm what was inside.
Analytical chemist Dr Celine Kelso has tested hundreds of samples and said illegally imported devices usually do not mention nicotine on the packaging to evade seizure by border authorities.
“Nicotine is illegal in Australia, so by not having it on the package it’s a way for sellers to stop sample seizures,” she said.
Dr. Kelso found that the Gunnpod vapes we purchased all contained high levels of nicotine.
“It’s in as high a concentration as you get in these kinds of devices,” she said.
After getting the results, Four Corners approached the man behind the Gunnpod Australia website.
Outside his warehouse in western Sydney, Hao Liu denied running a vaping business or selling Gunnpod vapes.
A few days after speaking with Mr. Liu, major changes were made to the website.
He now says he “holds no stock” and is working to bring Gunnpod to “every pharmacy” as “Australia’s first TGA-approved vape brand”.
In a statement, the managing director of retailer King of the Pack, Lucy Soud, said: “Any instances of alleged sales of nicotine e-cigarettes or nicotine e-liquid are taken seriously by King of the Pack and made the subject to in-depth investigation.
“Frequent inspections are carried out of retailers and wholesalers to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and, where appropriate, issues are referred to the appropriate authorities.”
Cristie Bowler, director of national operations for Cignall, said all franchisees must sign a pledge that they will not sell vaping products containing nicotine.
“We do not condone or condone any of our franchise businesses engaging in the supply of illicit tobacco products,” Ms Bowler said.
Children addicted to nicotine
In her senior year of high school, Ruby says giving up vaping isn’t easy. She suffers from withdrawal symptoms including food cravings, anxiety and headaches.
A few months ago, Ruby confessed to her mother Nikola that she vaped and needed help quitting. She now takes nicotine patches and her mother sees her regularly.
“She had tried to quit, and she couldn’t. She had had these really nasty symptoms that she didn’t like and that bothered her, and she wanted me to help her find a way to get over it. get out of it,” Nikola told Four. Corners.
“I was really upset. I was really scared for her health. I felt really angry that this product existed that seemed almost designed to appeal to children and now she couldn’t stop it.”
To help her quit, Ruby asked her friends not to vape her, even though she begs.
“It’s like a monster taking hold of you. Like, I would go to people like ‘do you have a vape? and they’re like, we can’t give it to you, and I told them not to give it to me, but I’m so mad,” Ruby said.
“I’m like ‘you’re not my friend, if you really cared about me, you’d give me a vape’.”
Her friend Maya told Four Corners that she saw Ruby try to give up several times.
“It’s not a linear progression, you know, just ups and downs,” she said.
“It’s really difficult. If she quits this time or doesn’t quit this time, it’s okay, at least she tries.”
Additional reporting by Jeanavive McGregor and Patrick Begley
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