An addictive substance available on almost every street corner has hit epidemic proportions in Horowhenua.
Vaping products containing highly addictive nicotine are now prevalent in the community, available at 31 different locations in Levin alone - seven specialised vape outlets and 24 dairies and service stations.
Local health advocate Catherine Manning describes the rise in use and availability of vape products and the proliferation of vape outlets as “scandalous”. Vape devices containing high levels of nicotine were anecdotally making addicts out of children as young as 10.
Manning, a spokesperson for Te Rōpū Tupeka Kore, said the exponential rise of vape use and vape availability was dwarfing any relative decline in cigarette smoking.
Studies had shown that 56,000 people in New Zealand had stopped smoking in the past year, yet an estimated 119,000 people aged between 15 and 24 are now addicted to vaping.
“That vapes are purely a smoking cessation tool is one of the biggest marketing scandals of our time,” she said.
“To say vaping is less harmful than smoking is a flawed argument. Less harmful than what? Something that can kill you?”
There were 1200 specialised vape stores that had set up across New Zealand in the past two years. Manning said many were placed in areas of high deprivation targeting those more likely to succumb to addiction, where smoking rates were already statistically higher.
Recent Government measures to curb youth vaping use didn’t go far enough, she said, and Te Rōpū Tupeka Kore was disappointed with the proposal put forward by the Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall last week.
The new measures include restricting new vape retailers to within 300m of schools or sports grounds, controlling vape flavour names, and implementing safety features for single-use vaping products that require them to have removable batteries.
Verrall said the declining rates of cigarette smoking of more than 1 per cent annually was because of the availability of vape products, as the Government heads towards a smoke-free target of 2025.
There was an admission that vaping was harmful, but the ministry’s stance was that it wasn’t as harmful as cigarette smoking.
Manning said the new measures didn’t address established outlets selling vape products and it was a lack of regulation on vaping products from their inception that had led to an epidemic.
“There is not one particular political party that is culpable; this needed to be regulated from the get-go,” she said.
Vape use was more prevalent in Māori communities and lower socioeconomic areas. The latest NZ Health Survey found daily 23 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds were vaping daily. Vaping rates were higher among Māori, in particular Māori girls.
“It’s a wild wild west scenario out there. We are gambling with the future of our rangitahi.”
Manning said schools were caught up in the epidemic and were left burdened with having to enforce punishment and prevention measures.
“You have to feel for school principals and teachers who are essentially inheriting this problem, that has come about through a lack of regulation and control,” she said.
By law, the sale and use of vapes is restricted to under-18s.
Waiopehu School principal Guy Reichenbach said all schools were smoke and vape-free areas. The school had counselling available for any students caught doing either, but had no choice but to enforce a stand-down period away from school for repeat offending.
Reichenbach said there was no denying that students at his school were vaping and the school was duty-bound to act. He was concerned that some were addicted to nicotine before they enrolled at secondary school.
Horowhenua College principal Grant Congdon said the sheer number of students vaping meant schools now had adopted an educational approach, giving students the chance to respond to support before punitive measures.
While the school was now supporting students to quit their addiction, he would rather they weren’t addicted to start with.
“The horse has bolted,” he said.
“I am disappointed and frustrated when I see the disadvantages it brings to students and their families and it is Government inaction that has got us to this point. It didn’t have the restrictions around it that it needed.”
“I’m happy to be candid; all I see is disadvantage. I can’t see the health benefit. I can’t see the financial benefit.”
In Levin, every tobacco and vape store is located within 1km of a school and stores are more likely to appear in areas of high deprivation.
Manning said the average cigarette contained 0.8mg to 1.1mg of nicotine. Disposable vapes contained an average of 50mg. To consume a disposable vape in one was to consume the nicotine equivalent of 40 cigarettes.
She was also concerned the true health dangers of vaping were not yet known as there was little research. There was the fear that vaping was introducing cancer-causing chemicals to the lungs of users.
“The problem is, where do they go to get help? Stop smoking services are only contracted for smoking cessation support. Education is only as good as the support on the ground,” she said.
Manning said Te Rōpū Tupeka Kore was also recommending:
- A complete ban on cheap non-refillable or disposable vapes.
- Lowering the nicotine levels from 50mg to 20mg in line with other countries like EU.
- Implementing plain (black and white) packaging with warnings on all vape products.
- Restricting flavour varieties as well as flavour names.
- Removing all vaping products and displays from the sight of children in dairies.
- The sale of vapes to be sold only by specialised vape retailers.
- Restricting new vape retailers from operating, and setting a maximum cap on all vape retailers within Aotearoa.
- Implement a sinking lid on all current specialist vape retailers (SVRs) located within 1-2km proximity of schools, marae, significant landmarks, playgrounds, and sports fields.
- Implement a sinking lid on all current “store within a store” models that expose young people to vapes, and making all current “store within a store” models into R18 stores with completely different businesses, staff and entrances.
- Stronger penalties that include losing a licence on breach of compliance, such as selling to minors.
- Investing more into supporting smokefree/vapefree enforcement officers.
- More investment into supporting schools, communities, parents and rangatahi to quit vaping.
There are two types of retailers: special vape retailers (SVR) and approved vape retailers (AVP). An SVR must be approved by the Vaping Regulatory Authority (VRA). The cost for an SVR licence is $1600, and an AVP licence is $600.
- Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ on Air.