Vaping has arrived on New Zealand's television screens – and some Kiwis aren't happy about it.
The Advertising Standards Authority this week confirmed to the Herald that a new TV ad for Kiwi vape brand Alt has attracted two complaints from concerned members of the public.
ASA chief executive Hilary Souter said the complaints had only recently been made and the matter was yet to appear before the board.
Souter explained that both complaints questioned why vaping products were being advertised on television when there was a blanket prohibition on cigarette advertising.
The ad which sparked the complaints trumpets the financial advantage of vaping, pointing out that smokers could make huge savings by switching from cigarettes.
This theme is seen often in vape advertising, with products being presented as the more affordable, less stigmatised alternative to the much-maligned habit of smoking.
And Kiwis seem to be buying into the promise of having a casual puff that comes without the stale stench of an ashtray. It's turning into big business and a few local players are capitalising on the opportunity.
Alt director Ben Pryor, who also owns e-cigarette retail firm Vapo, says his Penrose headquarters already houses 60 staff, and he hopes to grow this to 100 by the end of next year.
While the company has been steadily growing over the past four years, the team decided to take the plunge into TV advertising largely because of the impending threat of international juggernauts moving in on the local market.
"Rest assured, they will be throwing their weight around very soon," says Pryor, almost ominously.
"We wanted to get in first and launch Alt to Kiwis keen to give up smoking."
Pryor's concerns aren't without merit, with legacy tobacco companies making a big push into the vaping market in recent years. Popular international brands Blu, Vuse, and Mesh can all be linked back to big tobacco firms, focused on tapping into this growing revenue stream to make up for losses in cigarette sales.
"The worry now with big tobacco set to come in is that they'll be targeting young people and sending any profits offshore," says Pryor.
"You've got to remember that unlike the big tobacco companies, we didn't start people smoking in the first place. The fact that they're now set to enter the New Zealand vaping market and pitch themselves as a saviour to smokers is ironic in the very least."
The R word
As the vaping market matures in New Zealand, Pryor's business also faces the local threat of regulation.
But he doesn't see this as a bad thing.
"At the moment there's a voluntary code for the industry but absolute standards are well overdue, particularly if we are to safeguard New Zealand consumers," he says.
He points to the ASA complaints as evidence of the need for clear rules to differentiate vaping from smoking.
"We have been advocating for more regulation for five years," he says.
"We hate trying to second guess what our business position is and most importantly, young people need to be protected."
Pryor points out that it makes no sense to conflate vaping and smoking, given that even the Ministry of Health views the former as the healthier alternative.
He argues that clearer rules, established through regulation, will provide an indication of where the vape industry can and can't go, rather than having the products lumped together with their stigmatised predecessor.
This year, the Ministry of Health announced it would amend the Smoke-free Environments Act next year to ban vaping in bars, restaurants and workplaces.
There is also a proposal to change the way vaping products are displayed in retail stores in a bid to protect children from taking up the products.
Pryor says this change would be essential, especially with big international firms likely to bring their strategies to the local market.
Are the kids alright?
US Data shows e-cigarette company Juul has grown quickly to dominate nearly 60 per cent of the US market. In the process, it has attracted a following of younger users so large that Vox Media in August ran an article titled "Juul, the vape device teens are getting hooked on, explained".
Fruity flavours, ads on Instagram and hip retail outlets have all conspired in a deft marketing strategy to pull in a category of consumers who have no interest in tobacco leaves wrapped in tissue.
Concerns regarding the enormous appeal of these products to younger users have also emerged in the local market.
While Alt's is the first TV vaping ad to waft its way across to the ASA, back in March the authority received a complaint about an advertisement for Cosmic E-cigarettes that appeared on the back of a bus.
While the ASA board acknowledged the complainant's concerns that the ad might be seen by children, the board dismissed the complaint because it was not overtly appealing to younger eyes and did not glamorise smoking in any way.
Viewed within the context of this precedent, the Alt ad does exactly the opposite of glamorising smoking, instead pointing out that it's an expensive and stigmatised activity.
As Pryor explains: "Our ads are pretty conservative. They're not promising anything and they're certainly not pitching at teens or young adults."
It's also worth noting that the ad appeared after 8.30pm, which reduces the likelihood of kids seeing it.
The question now is whether the ASA will see things this way or take a more protective stance.