By Renju Jose
SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia banned recreational vaping and tightened other aspects of e-cigarette laws on Tuesday in the biggest crackdown on the tobacco industry in more than a decade to try to stop an alarming rise in teenage vaping.
The government aims to ban all disposable vapes, which often comes in fruity flavours, ban the import of non-prescription vapes and limit nicotine levels, aiming for the sale of vapes to be confined to helping smokers quit.
"Just like they did with smoking, Big Tobacco has taken another addictive product, wrapped it in shiny packaging and added flavours to create a new generation of nicotine addicts," Health Minister Mark Butler said in a speech at the National Press Club.
Under the new rules, vapes will be sold only in pharmacies and require "pharmaceutical-type" packaging.
Vaping, widely seen as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes and useful for helping smokers quit, involves heating a liquid that contains nicotine in what is called an e-cigarette and turning it into a vapour that users inhale.
But studies have shown the potential of long-term harm from the addictive e-cigarettes.
Butler said vaping had become a recreational product in Australia, mostly sold to teenagers and young people, who are three times as likely to take up smoking.
"This is a product targeted at our kids, sold alongside lollies and chocolate bars," Butler said. "Vaping has now become the number one behavioural issue in high schools. And it's becoming widespread in primary schools as well."
Doctors backed the vaping crackdown but urged the government to do more to limit the number of young people taking it up.
"Nicotine vaping products are being sold featuring colourful flavours and we have even seen products featuring the same type of imagery as children's breakfast cereal including cartoon characters," said Nicole Higgins, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
About 22% of Australians aged 18-24 have used an e-cigarette or vaping device at least once, data last year showed.
Though a prescription is needed to buy nicotine vapes in Australia, a thriving illegal market means they are readily available.
The federal budget, due out next week, will include A$234 million ($155 million) for measures to protect against the harm caused by tobacco and vaping.
Australia has one of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world.
In 2012, it became the first country to force cigarette producers to abandon distinct, colourful branding and sell their products in uniformly drab packets.
Tobacco firms were quick to switch to e-cigarettes that offer different flavours and created designs targeting a new generation of users.
Butler said the government had no plan to follow neighbouring New Zealand in banning cigarette sales for future generations but said the tax on tobacco would be raised by 5% a year over the next three years in a bid to curb sales.
Some countries have tried to restrict vaping and some see it as a good way to get smokers to kick the habit.
Britain said in April up to one million smokers would be encouraged to swap cigarettes for vapes, in what was a world first, offering financial incentives for pregnant women and providing e-cigarette starter kits to help.
($1 = 1.5088 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Sonali Paul, Robert Birsel)