Thousands of New Zealand smokers' lives could be saved by legalising domestic sales of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine, a leading vendor says.
The claim by Cosmic, which is selling the devices, comes as submissions close today on a legalisation plan and has some backing from public health experts, both here and overseas.
There could be some real potential for Maori smokers
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Public Health England, which has helped to revolutionise official views on e-cigarettes in New Zealand, has said the nicotine delivery systems can help smokers quit, and they carry only a small fraction of the risk of smoking tobacco.
Auckland University's Professor Chris Bullen, who led the world's first high-quality trial to compare the quit-smoking rates of e-cigarettes and nicotine patches, said: "I don't think they are a magic bullet. They're not the sole thing that's going to get us there [to the Smokefree 2025 goal], but I think they will help some population groups where we haven't seen a breakthrough before.
"There could be some real potential for Maori smokers."
His group's trial found in 2013 that nicotine e-cigarettes were as good as patches, but he said the e-cigarettes sold today were superior to those in the trial, which delivered less nicotine than a cigarette.
"Experienced users can [now] get nicotine equivalent to smoking a standard cigarette."
Around 546,000 Kiwis smoke daily, 15 per cent of the adult population. Every day on average, at least 13 people die from a smoking-related disease, around 5000 people a year. Half of smokers die from a smoking-related illness and on average their deaths will be 14 years earlier than if they didn't smoke.
Many smokers and e-cigarette users will be carefully watching the Health Ministry's response to submissions on its proposal to legalise and regulate nicotine-based e-cigarettes, which cannot currently be legally sold in New Zealand.
The ministry said it has received more than 100 submissions. It will advise the Government by the end of the year on proposed changes to regulations under the Smokefree Environments Act.
A group of Otago University researchers are pushing for dairies, supermarkets and petrol stations to be prevented from selling e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine, saying instead that the permitted vendors should be limited to pharmacies or licensed "vape" shops.
Users "vape" on an e-cigarette, inhaling its nicotine-containing vapour, in the way that smokers inhale the smoke of a tobacco cigarette, which contains nicotine plus many cancer-causing chemicals.
Cosmic, which sells the vaping devices legally from seven retail stores nationally and an online business, said it had gained knowledge of e-cigarettes from the tens of thousands of customers who had bought its devices.
"There is no question these new devices represent the current best option to help smokers of traditional cigarettes to cut back or even stop altogether," said the chain's owner, Mark Carswell. "This is partly because they provide an 'oral fix' that nicotine patches don't."
In England, e-cigarettes are the leading form of quit-smoking aid, used by 35 per cent of smokers trying to quit, compared with the 27 per cent who use NRT.
Some researchers argue that e-cigarettes risk providing a "gateway" into smoking for youth, but Bullen said there was no evidence of this.
He and colleagues on the National Smokefree Working Group have recommended that only vape shops with staff trained to provide quit-smoking support, pharmacies and online stores be permitted to sell e-cigarettes at first.
Bullen favours later allowing supermarkets - but not dairies or petrol stations - to join in "if there is no evidence of youth uptake or other harms".
His group is starting a new trial which will compare the quit-smoking rates of three groups of smokers: one using just a daily nicotine patch, another using that plus a nicotine e-cigarette, and the third using patches plus a nicotine-free e-cigarette. All participants will receive standard telephone-based behavioural support.
• A legal grey area
• It's unlawful to sell the nicotine or the devices containing it locally
• They can be legally imported via internet for personal use
• Health Ministry takes no enforcement action
Health Ministry proposal
• Local sales permitted
• Advertising restricted
• Vaping banned in smokefree areas, such as in bars and other workplaces.