By Matthew Theunissen of RNZ

Tobacco companies are ramping up advertising for vaping products in what's being called a lolly scramble for customers, before new regulations come in.

Local e-cigarette businesses and anti-smoking groups say the aggressive marketing campaigns are a bid to maximise sales before an expected clampdown on how alternatives to smoking can be advertised.

Ben Youdan from the smoking and health lobby ASH said the current lack of regulation meant it was a free-for-all.

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"It's a consequence of particularly the tobacco company manufacturers having a massive lolly scramble for customers at the moment because there are no regulations about how they advertise or promote these products."

A proposed amendment to the Smoke-free Environment Act is expected to go before Parliament in September to control how vaping can be advertised.

Youdan said vaping's been around for about a decade but the laws are lagging well behind.

"The legislative process needs to rapidly catch up before it spirals totally out of control."

Up until very recently New Zealand's vape market was dominated by local entrepreneurs who Youdan says were by and large responsible and responsive to concerns about vaping.

But big tobacco's emergence had drastically altered the state of the industry.

"In some ways it's left the domestic market with no choice but to try and compete and catch up. Particularly in the last six months there's been such a considerable change to the vaping market in New Zealand," Youdan said.

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"I think it's really going to be very disruptive and it's going to be quite a job to try and undo some of the confusion and potential harm that could be done from having this complete free-for-all."

One of the local players Youdan is referring to is VAPO.

Its director Jonathan Devery said the company had ramped up advertising in response to Imperial pushing myblu and British American Tobacco its Vype range on mainstream media.

"Obviously they have a lot more resources than we do. But from our perspective, whilst the door is open for advertising on the likes of TV and radio and whether or not that door is always going to be open or if regulation is going to close some of those options in the meantime it's become clear, with how aggressive the tobacco companies are being, [that] we can't sit back, we have to take them head-on. It's competitive, for sure."

The Advertising Standards Authority has had 58 complaints about advertisements for vaping products in the past 12 months or so.

Its chief executive, Hilary Souter, said there was a clear theme.

"The main issue people are complaining about is that a vape product is being advertised where a tobacco product cannot be. They're saying, 'How is it that these products are legal to advertise when tobacco is not?'"

Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa, who's been working on the amendment to the Smoke-free Environment Act, told Morning Report it was "very concerning" that any tobacco company was promoting its products.

"The Smoke-free Environment Act 1990 does not regulate vaping and vaping products and this is an issue that we are bringing legislation in to ensure we address vaping and vaping products," Salesa said.

"In terms of advertising it will prohibit all forms of advertising ... it will prohibit promotion as well as sponsorship of vaping products and tobacco devices.

"What we are told by a lot of our specialists and information from overseas ... is it is much less harmful when compared to tobacco. It is 90 to 95 per cent less harmful...

"However, the Smoke-free Environment act does not have the capacity and the capability at the moment to ensure that we have monitoring of product safety and the legislation that I'm bringing through will allow product safety to be set.

"It will also include setting maximum levels for nicotine, it will also include manufacturers and suppliers telling the Ministry of Health what they are about to sell ... they would also be removed from the shop shelves. As you know, when shops actually sell tobacco, they have to put it behind a shelf. The same thing will apply to vaping.

"The new legislation coming through would also legislate ... so that you are prohibited from vaping in places that are smokefree."

British American Tobacco wouldn't be interviewed but say in a statement they support regulations to set standards for vaping products.

Imperial Brands and Philip Morris didn't respond to requests for comment by deadline.