One of the country's major supermarket chains has started selling electronic cigarettes as the tax on tobacco increased a further 10 per cent this month.
Progressive Enterprises, which owns Countdown, FreshChoice and SuperValue supermarkets, confirmed it had been trialling the sale of non-nicotine e-cigarette products in 20 stores around the country since December 20.
It could be a major step towards making the sale of e-cigarettes mainstream in New Zealand.
However, scientists and policy-makers are divided on effectiveness e-cigarette as an aid to stopping smoking.
According to the Ministry of Health, selling non-nicotine e-cigarettes is legal and supermarkets have the right to choose whether or not to sell them.
The new Labour-led Government has continued the previous administration's policy of an annual increase in excise tax on tobacco in support of its Smokefree 2025 initiative.
E-cigarette retailer Vapo said it was providing Countdown, FreshChoice and SuperValue supermarkets with its "beginner product range".
These do not contain nicotine like some products available in specialist vaping stores.
The sale of nicotine-based products for e-cigarettes is currently illegal, although they are widely available. The status of these products is currently being considered by the Government.
New Zealand's other major supermarket chain, Foodstuffs, said it was not selling e-cigarette products.
Vapo founder Ben Pryor said the company had seen a "huge spike in sales through these channels" over the New Year period.
"We assume this is on account of supermarkets being a great place for new vapers to conveniently purchase an e-cigarette/vaping device without having to stop by a dedicated vape shop," he said.
In the two weeks from December 27, Vapo had seen a 57 per cent increase in overall online sales compared to the previous fortnight. Online store visits had increased 30 per cent.
"The only stat that has dropped is repeat customer percentage which suggests a larger proportion of our customers are new to vaping," Pryor said.
The company, which started life from Ben Pryor's Auckland home, recently hired extra customer service staff to attend increasing phone calls and email queries.
"Our organic online traffic referrals from Google have increased 42 per cent showing a spike in people searching for e-cigarettes and vaping devices," Pryor said.
Vapo's data tentatively suggested there were between 100,000 to 200,000 people using e-cigarettes in New Zealand.
"I think we will definitely see an increase in vaping in New Zealand this year."
The faster industry regulations were finalised the better, Pryor said.
"The positive stance from the government so far has done wonders for shedding light on the benefits of vaping as a smoking substitute but without official regulation the industry is open to quality and integrity issues.
"This is something that concerns us as this potentially life-saving technology may be tarnished by retailers that prioritise profits over customer care."
Independent UK-based e-cigarette market monitoring company ECigIntelligence put a far more conservative estimate of 30,000 vapers in New Zealand, "although this number is very likely to increase if — as anticipated — the legal situation becomes friendlier", said spokesman Barnaby Page.
"It's very small at the moment but regulators and law-makers have obviously been willing to listen to the arguments in favour of e-cigarettes, and — barring unforeseen events — liberalisation is likely to lead to fairly sharp market growth."
The world had become split into broadly "anti" and "pro" vaping countries.
"The heart of the debate, of course, is whether e-cigs are good things because they help people stop smoking, or bad things because they might lead some people into smoking ... the evidence seems to largely favour the first position," Page said.
"In other words, are e-cigs part of the problem or part of the solution? New Zealand seems to have come down on the 'solution' side of the debate."
The products' prevalence in the coming years would very much hinge on the details, particularly how e-cigarettes can be marketed, how and where they can be sold, what restrictions are placed on product characteristics, how they are portrayed in the media, and how they are perceived by consumers.
"The position of the medical profession and medical bodies plays a large role in those last two issues; they may not have much direct impact on uptake of e-cigs but they certainly help to define the framework for whether e-cigs are perceived as a positive development or a negative one."
That, in turn, influenced policy and consumer willingness to take the leap from cigarettes to the healthier, albeit unfamiliar, alternative, Page said.
According to the latest New Zealand Health Survey, an estimated 529,000 adults or 13.8 per cent of the population who are 15 years and older classify themselves as daily smokers.
The Ministry of Health said it believed increasing the price of tobacco was the single most effective measure to reduce tobacco consumption.
Tobacco consumption among those aged over 5 had reduced by about 30 per cent between 2010 — when the regular tobacco excise increases began — and 2016.
The Ministry expected tobacco consumption would continue to decrease.
Price increases were particularly effective in preventing young people from smoking, with daily smoking rates among 15 to 17 year olds having reduced from 6.4 per cent in 2011/12 to 3.2 per cent in 2016/17. In 2006/07 the daily smoking rate in this group was 13.7 per cent.
Vaping in New Zealand (2016)
• One in six New Zealand adults have tried e-cigarettes
• 3% of adults currently use e-cigarettes
• Out of those who have tried an e-cigarette, 16% currently use them
• 43% of adults agree that e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking
• Men (20%) were more likely to have tried e-cigarettes than women (14%)
- Source: Health Promotion Agency preliminary analysis from the 2016 Health & Lifestyle Survey