A Kaipara community is taking a stand to protect their youth from the potential harm of vaping after raising attention to the number of retailers in Dargaville – but authorities claim they have no power to intervene.
Twelve retailers sell vape products within a kilometre of Dargaville town centre.
That's excessive for a town with a population of 4800, the public says.
Alexa Forrest-Pain, public health manager for Māori health provider Te Hā Oranga, said it was brought to their attention last year.
There were three specialist vaping retailers within 150m of each other on Victoria St and a further nine shops, including petrol stations and dairies, that sell vape and tobacco items within a 1km radius.
The Advocate could only verify the location of two of the specialist vaping retailers.
"It seems like it's oversaturated with vaping retailers, considering the size of the township," Forrest-Pain said.
"The public identified this as an issue."
Te Hā Oranga had teamed up with the Northland District Health Board and the Northland branch of the Cancer Society and lodged a petition supported by 138 signatures with the Kaipara District Council.
"While we want to provide adequate support and supply of vapes to those wanting to use vaping products as a smoking cessation tool, it is of the utmost importance that we also protect our community, particularly our rangatahi and other whānau who would not usually vape, from uptake of the use of these products," the joint statement in the petition reads.
"There is a fine line between supply and saturation of retailers, and there currently is an oversupply of vaping products in the Kaipara region."
The petition that was presented to the council in November asked to introduce a bylaw to regulate the number of vape stores in the district.
Forrest-Pain explained it was an issue for the Ministry of Health to deal with, however the petition was addressed to the council to get its support in the matter.
She stressed that it wasn't about banning vaping in town but about protecting youth from the potential harms of vaping.
2020 Vapes owner Nick Forrest, who owns vape specialist stores in Dargaville and Whangārei, launched his business in 2016 together with his wife after they successfully quit smoking cigarettes.
Forrest said there weren't many products on the market then so he and his wife developed their own e-liquids.
"We're there as a healthier alternative to smoking."
His specialist store was focused on helping people who want to quit smoking and offered advice.
Forrest agreed that there were many retailers who sell vaping products in Dargaville but he didn't regard general stores like dairies as competition because they didn't offer the same kind of service.
"There is a demand for specialist shops because Dargaville caters to a huge area, including Tinopai and Maungaturoto."
Forrest said they strictly checked the IDs of young customers.
Nearby vape specialist Shosha also strictly enforces rules around under-aged youth, owner Prashanth Arukonda said.
He said customers in his Whangārei shop were asking him to open a store in Dargaville as they were driving over from the small Kaipara town to get the e-liquid of their choice.
Arukonda opened the Dargaville Shosha shop about six months ago.
"Every vape shop is different and they sell different liquids. Once people like a specific flavour they will come back for that."
He said, too, that most of his customers bought vaping products in an attempt to quit smoking.
Dargaville resident Taylor Morgan was aware of the petition as well as the growing number of vape shops in town.
She said it was particularly noticeable that the number of kids who vape is increasing and believed their parents or older siblings provided access.
"I think it needs to be better regulated. Everyone who goes into the shop needs to be ID'd, even if parents are present. And one vape shop in a small town is definitely enough."
Meanwhile, Yvette Gilchrist noted that the vape shops get broken into often.
"Vaping should be on par with smoking. There is nothing worse than walking through a cloud of vaping smoke. It should be banned around children."
Sixteen-year-old Dargaville students Haylee Mitchell, Miki McKenzie and Jay Smith said many kids at their school vaped.
"I don't like it, it's unhealthy," Miki said.
They speculated that older friends or siblings would buy vapes for under-aged students.
But reducing the vape supply in Dargaville is currently not possible.
The council addressed the petition in its meeting in February after seeking legal advice.
KDC clarified that under the current legislation council had no say in where vape retailers open outside of general district plan zoning that controls the location of commercial activities.
While the Ministry of Health keeps a record of specialist vape retailers in New Zealand, they too have no legislative power to regulate the locations and density of shops.
According to their registry, there are 19 vape retailers in Northland; two in Dargaville, one each in Kerikeri, Mangawhai and Kawakawa, and seven each in Kaitaia and Whangārei.
This is in addition to the 200-plus general retailers that tobacco and often vape products.
Only specialist vape retailers are allowed to sell vape flavours other than mint, menthol and tobacco.
The Ministry said it would only intervene if there was a compliance and enforcement issue.
"For example, if specialist vape retailers were not meeting the conditions of their approval, young people under the age of 18 were accessing the stores," a spokesperson said.
The Ministry encouraged people to report any potential breaches of the Smokefree Act.
"The act has a regulation-making power that enables further approval requirements to be set, if deemed necessary."
A new amendment bill which will be introduced to Parliament in the second half of this year as part of the Smokefree Aotearoa Action Plan 2025 might help regulate vape retail activities in the future but the Ministry couldn't release any details yet.
Another pathway for the petitioning organisations would be to pursue a remit to Local Government New Zealand to advocate for controls which they are currently considering.