Vaping rates, particularly among young people, have rapidly risen. Our political parties are starting to take notice, but the next government must turn proposals into policies
Opinion: I knew the message about problem vaping was getting out there when the latest National Party election flyer appeared in my letterbox last week.
It was from Tāmaki MP Simon O’Connor and featured a number of tick boxes, where he asked potential voters about areas they might want to see action on. One of them was tightening up vaping regulations.
It was on the radar.
Further vaping clamp-downs on the table
* Vaping industry needs to walk the talk
* Vaping: The good, the bad and the maybes
Labour is also making promises about vaping, including a pledge to halve the number of vape stores and increase penalties for retailers that sell to young people.
The Green Party is fighting vaping on two fronts: the harm to young people and the impact of throw-away vape products – and their chemical components – on the environment.
Meanwhile, the Opportunities Party launched an anti-vape petition, and even Act leader David Seymour has suggested a regime where only shops with a liquor licence would be able to sell vapes.
The message: something must be done about the rapid rise in the popularity of vaping in the last few years, especially among youth and young adults.
The number of New Zealanders aged 15-17 who vaped daily nearly quadrupled from under 2 percent in 2018-19 to 7 percent in 2021-22, according to data from the NZ Health Survey.
Remember, vaping is illegal for anyone under 18. Some principals have referred to in-school vaping reaching “crisis’ proportions.
Overall in 2021, 8.3 percent of people over the age of 15 were daily vapers, with the highest use (22.9 percent) among those aged 18-24.
Even 14 and 15-year-olds (Year 10) are vaping, with as many as 8 percent vaping ‘regularly’ – either daily, weekly, or monthly, according to the latest survey from smoke-free lobby group Ash.
New Zealand should be following the lead overseas, and that needs all our political parties to be working towards the same goal – reducing the uptake of vaping among youth and young adults, while still allowing smokers to switch to vaping to help them quit
Māori are over-represented in vaping rates, with the same survey showing 21.7 percent of Year 10 Māori students and 25 percent of Māori girls of that age are vaping daily.
Even knowing all the figures, I was shocked when I was contacted by someone asking for advice on how to support an increasing number of primary school-aged kids – some as young as eight – suffering nicotine withdrawal.
Though New Zealand is highly regarded for having some of the strongest smoking laws in the world, we also have one of the highest youth vaping rates. Compare our 18 percent for 14-15 year olds vaping regularly with, for example, the 7.6 percent of UK 11-17-year-olds who vape, and the five percent of New South Wales 14-17-year-olds who reported vaping between 10 and 30 days in the previous month in a 2021 survey.
Overall nicotine usage in New Zealand, at least in young people, is on the rise.
Nicotine-containing vapes were only legally able to be sold in New Zealand from 2018, after a successful court case by Philip Morris. But then for a while it was open slather. Until 2020, there were no regulations on vaping.
Ever so slowly, new rules are coming into play to restrict various aspects of vaping in Aotearoa. But big questions remain about whether they go far enough to reduce the uptake of youth vaping – and the potential harm.
E-cigarettes are too new for anyone to know the long-term health effects, but there is good consensus that although they are less damaging than cigarettes, they certainly can’t be considered safe.
The aerosol created from an e-cigarette contains an array of chemicals, including nicotine, flavourings, and solvents (propylene glycol and glycerin). Research carried out by my team has found chemicals, including the known carcinogen formaldehyde and heavy metals, created from the heating process.
One thing we know is nicotine is not great for the brain, especially for a child or young person. Negative health effects include developmental delays, addiction, mental health problems, and behavioural changes. Adolescent vapers can find it harder to concentrate and learn; they can suffer from mood changes and poor impulse control.
This knowledge should be enough to know we need to do more to prevent youth vaping.
Any changes to vaping rules need to come from the government. This year the current Labour Government announced that it would “effectively ban disposable vapes, stop new vape shops from opening near schools and marae and restrict the number of flavours”.
The trouble is, this isn’t what they’ve actually done. Disposable vapes, albeit with removable or rechargeable batteries, are still widespread. Existing vape stores close to schools and marae remain open. And vape companies – often owned by Big Tobacco – simply need to change the names of their flavourings, rather than take any products off the shelves.
National doesn’t have an official policy on vaping – at least not one that’s on its website. The party has said in the past they are “broadly” supportive of Labour’s proposals but that if those don’t work, it’s prepared to do more. This is as clear as mud
Disposable vapes are cheap (as low as $2 per vape) and end up causing environmental damage in landfill.
All this matters. It doesn’t make sense that the regulations have not gone as far as the proposals.
There is one easy-fix being considered overseas – getting rid of the thousands of tempting flavours of e-liquid on the market. US research published earlier this year in the Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs found nearly 71 percent of the adolescents and young adults surveyed said they would stop vaping if only tobacco flavour was available.
Almost 40 percent said they would quit if everything except tobacco and menthol flavours were banned.
The US has been cracking down on disposable flavoured vapes in 2020, and as National Public Radio reported in July, in theory only 23 e-cigarette products are now legal to sell in US stores, and they are all tobacco-flavoured. It’s a good step, although worried parents report illegal products – particularly disposable and flavoured vapes – are still widely available.
Meanwhile, the Australian government has announced – though not yet implemented – stringent rules for vaping products, including banning the import of non-prescription vapes; restricting flavours, colours and other ingredients; and banning all single-use vapes.
New Zealand should be following the lead overseas, and that needs all our political parties to be working towards the same goal – reducing the uptake of vaping among youth and young adults, while still allowing smokers to switch to vaping to help them quit.
So far this election campaign, the politicians aren’t proposing big enough changes.
Labour has reported a clear goal around vaping if re-elected and the Greens have publicly come out in support of Labour’s stance, saying they are particularly concerned about unsustainable disposable vapes. Perhaps they don’t realise Labour hasn’t actually banned them.
National doesn’t have an official policy on vaping – at least not one that’s on its website. Still, that election flyer I received gave voters the option of ticking a box to express concern about vaping. That shows it’s on the radar on the right too.
The party has said in the past they are “broadly” supportive of Labour’s proposals but that if those don’t work, it’s prepared to do more.
This is as clear as mud.
And Act leader David Seymour’s suggestion about a licensing regime isn’t an official policy.
There are plenty of good ideas out there in the election-fuelled ether. It’s good to see politicians of all shades starting to see vaping as the growing problem it is. But once October 14 has come and gone, whichever political parties are in government – supported hopefully by the ones who aren’t – need to get beyond promises and proposals and start implementing real policies.