Opinion: When vaping products were introduced, manufacturers claimed they offered a reduced harm alternative for smokers. However, marketing campaigns have targeted young people, framed vapes as recreational devices and piqued young people’s interest. As a result, youth and young adult vaping rates are much higher than in older age groups.

Current policies in Aotearoa New Zealand do not adequately protect young people from a marketing environment where vaping products are appealing, affordable, and accessible. The Government has consulted on measures to tighten existing regulations, including proposals that could stop specialist vape stores from setting up businesses near schools, reduce appealing flavour names and require all vape products to have removable batteries.

Vaping: The good, the bad and the maybes
Youth vaping: New regulations too little too late?
* Govt v Tobacco: The Tale of the Vape

We believe these proposals do not go far enough. The NZ Ministry of Health will soon release new regulations, but these will be limited to provisions outlined in the legislation.

News of stricter controls on vaping products in Australia led to Health Minister Ayesha Verrall acknowledging that New Zealand hasn’t got the balance right between presenting vaping as a less harmful option for people who smoke while ensuring young people do not start vaping. National Party leader Christopher Luxon is reportedly open to a ban on vaping.

Could we benefit from adopting the Aussie rules?

The new Australian measures aim to reduce youth vaping prevalence and end illicit trade in vaping products that contain nicotine. Measures include:

* Restricting the flavours, colours and other ingredients permitted in vaping products.

Requiring vaping products to use “pharmaceutical-like packaging” (ie plain white packages with black font).

Lowering permitted nicotine concentrations in vaping products.

Making it easier for people who smoke to obtain prescriptions that enable them to access vaping products.

Disallowing supply of single-use disposable vapes.

Though still short on detail, these measures seem likely to reduce youth vaping.

Ending the sale of disposable vapes is important, given these inexpensive and brightly coloured products target young people and cause considerable environmental harm. Removing disposables from the market will reduce vaping’s appeal to young people, just as ending single stick and 10-pack cigarette sales made smoked tobacco more difficult for young people to afford. People who smoke and wish to switch to vaping seem unlikely to be affected by this measure as they need a device they can use for several weeks.

Vaping regulation in NZ

Disposable vapes

The NZ Ministry of Health has also considered tighter regulation of disposable vaping products but proposed a different approach. A recent consultation suggested disposable vaping products should have removable batteries, which could effectively end their sales, though for environmental rather than youth protection reasons. We suggest NZ should adopt a stronger approach, focus explicitly on protecting young people, and disallow the importation and sale of all disposable vapes. 

Nicotine concentration

The Government is considering limiting the nicotine concentration of vaping products. We believe the level set needs a sound evidence base that recognises that people who smoke will need a satisfying alternative to smoking, before they can switch successfully to vaping. Our current permitted nicotine levels are considerably higher than those the EU and UK permit, which do not appear to have adversely affected the decline in smoking attributed to vaping in the UK.

Plain packaging

Australia’s decision to require pharmacy packaging (plain white packaging with black font text) will remove eye-catching branding and help reduce vaping’s appeal to young people. Though the MoH did not consult on this measure, we support its introduction as another measure that will protect young people.

Retail locations

Australia aims to end illicit sales of vaping products containing nicotine in convenience stores; its current law does not permit sale of these products though compliance is reportedly poor. NZ, by contrast, allows vaping products to be sold as consumer products – an approach that leaves young people potentially widely exposed to vaping products. A recent survey of secondary school students found a half of those who reported vaping had obtained a vape from a dairy. Restricting sales of vaping products to specialist R18 stores, whose staff have certified expertise in supporting transitions from smoking to exclusive vaping, would benefit people who smoke while also protecting young people.

The MoH has sought feedback on introducing proximity limits that would prevent stores near schools from selling vaping products. However, these measures should also apply retrospectively as the numerous outlets currently located near schools will otherwise continue selling vaping products. The MoH should also introduce density limits, called for by Local Government NZ, to prevent clusters of vape stores from operating within a small area.

Vaping and NZ’s tobacco endgame

Though NZ has adopted bold tobacco endgame measures, Australia has not announced plans to denicotinise or greatly reduce the availability of smoked tobacco products, and its National Tobacco Strategy has taken a different direction. New Zealand’s focus on very rapid reductions in smoking prevalence makes it important that people who smoke can access alternative nicotine sources, including vaping products for those who have not found approved cessation treatments effective. As smoking prevalence falls, discussion needs to examine how people who vape may be supported to quit, and a pharmacy-supply model that supports vaping cessation may be appropriate at that time, as others have already suggested.

Australia’s new steps include some measures NZ is currently considering and that may be included in the regulations implementing the Smokefree Environments (Smoked Tobacco Products) Amendment Act 2023. However, though New Zealand may not yet wish to move to Australia’s prescription-only model, regulators could do more to restrict the availability of vaping products, including ending sales of disposable vapes, as Australia has announced. The approaches we have outlined would benefit young people who do not smoke as well as people who do, and should be regulatory priorities.

Authors: Janet Hoek, Jude Ball, Anaru Waa, and Richard Edwards

A longer version of this article appears on The Public Health Expert Briefing put out by the Public Health Communication Centre.

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