Youth vaping is rife. You only need to ask young people, teachers and parents of teens about the prevalence of youth vaping and you will hear the same message – it is everywhere.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ (The Foundation) raised concerns about New Zealand’s lack of regulations around vaping, and how this could impact rangatahi back in 2017. We had seen what was happening in the US and other countries, where vaping had become a significant health issue for young people.

Vapes, also known as e-cigarettes or ENDS (electronic nicotine devliery systems), were introduced and marketed in New Zealand as a smoking cessation tool. The jury still seems to be out on vaping’s effectiveness as a cessation tool. However, the consequence of releasing vape products into New Zealand’s largely unregulated environment is clear; they became widely available to young people.

Vape products were clearly marketed at teens as colourful, youth-friendly products with catchy names. What was less clear in the promotion of these products was the nicotine content. Some vaping products can contain up to 50mg of nicotine. To put this into perspective, smoking a packet of 20 cigarettes results in an individual inhaling between 22 to 36 mg of nicotine.

We now have regulations in place thanks to New Zealand’s Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Vaping) Amendment Act, which was passed in 2020. This legislation came in some time after vaping products hit our shelves, meaning there was plenty of opportunity for young people to experiment with and, in many cases, become dependent on the nicotine within vapes. This experimentation was fuelled by aggressive marketing at the youth market, so it’s no wonder we are now seeing such a widescale problem.

The statistics show worrying trends:

In the 2021 ASH Year 10 snapshot survey; regular vaping rates increased from 12% in 2019 to 20.2% in 2021. For Māori students regular vaping increased from 19.5% in 2019 to 35.6% in 2021. For Māori girls regular vaping increased from 19.1% in 2019 to 40.7% in 2021, and for Māori boys regular vaping increased from 19.2% in 2019 to 30.6% in 2021. For Pasifika students regular vaping increased from 12.1% in 2019 to 22% in 2021.

In the New Zealand Health Survey, the percentage of 15–17-year-olds who had tried e-cigarettes grew from 19.6% in 2017/18 to 32.3% in 2020/21, while daily vaping went from 0.6% to 5.8% over the same period.

It is frustrating that misinformation continues to circulate around vaping and its relative ‘safety’. I hear the claim that vapes are “95% less harmful” than cigarettes often being touted. This claim was based on a study undertaken in 2014, and is now considered by researchers to be out of date and misleading.

Claims that vaping has minimal harm has been refuted by the World Health Organisation. In a 2021 report, WHO concluded that that ENDS are addictive and not without harm and that adolescents double their risk of smoking cigarettes if they vape.

It is encouraging that Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall has spoken publicly on the scale of the youth vaping problem and the Ministry’s commitment to action. That action is needed now. The harm is occurring now. The Foundation would like to see the following actions prioritised by the Ministry:

Greater restrictions on maximum nicotine concentrations: We need to follow the European Union’s lead and restrict the maximum nicotine concentrations allowed in vapes to 20mg (2%).

Greater enforcement of the current rules, so that young people cannot access vapes so readily. A recent Fair Go hidden camera operation revealed how easily a 14-year old could buy a vape. Regulations exist to stop this from happening, but clearly more enforcement is needed.

Limit the number of retailers who can sell vapes, and close the loophole that allows dairies to operate as Specialist Vaping Retailers by cornering off part of their premises. There are now over 830 SVRs registered on the Health Advisory and Regulatory Platform (HARP), and more popping up at an alarming rate.

Keep vaping stores out of the immediate vicinity of schools and increase the purchasing age to 21.

New Zealand is currently considering world-leading legislation to create a Smokefree Generation: a fantastic initiative that will save many lives if made into law.

But vaping seems to be a blind spot. This legislation will not be a victory for public health, if our young people remain addicted to nicotine-containing vapes. Our Government needs to prioritise the lung health of our young people and protect them from vaping in the same way they are intending to protect them from cigarettes.

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