22 May 2024

Cook Islands bans vapes, smoking age raised to 21 - 'If you don't smoke you still die', opposition MP says

12:58 pm on 22 May 2024
Young man with vape, vaping, blowing a vape cloud.

Photo: Unsplash / Tbel Abuseridze

The Cook Islands is set to ban imitation tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, and will raise the smoking age from 18 to 21.

Importing and distributing imitation tobacco products could result in an NZD$100,000 fine or up to three months in prison for an individual.

While businesses caught doing the same face a $1,000,000 fine, additionally, non-compliant businesses will incur a daily penalty of $100,000 for each day the violation continues.

Visitors over the age of 21 will be exempt from the new rules and are allowed to bring one imitation tobacco device with up to 30 millilitres of liquid.

Other restrictions mean tobacco products can no longer be displayed for sale and smoking in public places is banned except in limited exceptions.

Businesses selling tobacco products will also need a licence to do so.

The Tobacco Control Amendment Bill 2024 passed its third reading in Parliament last week with most members of parliament supporting it, even inspiring MP George Agene - locally known as 'action man' - to vow publicly to quit smoking.

"Eight o'clock tonight I am separating cigarettes from my life," he told Parliament.

Health Minister Vainetutai Rose Toki-Brown said vaping needed to be dealt with before it got out of hand.

"We have been challenged to address this matter while it is still new and young in our country," she said.

However, United Party leader Teariki Heather was not supportive of the Bill arguing it encroached on people's "freedom of choice" and "human rights".

He also questioned how bad health outcomes from smoking were in the Cook Islands.

"If you don't smoke you will still die, if you smoke you will die", adding that his grandfather who smoked tobacco lived to 94.

'Not realising the bad effect'

Te Marae Ora Cook Islands Ministry of Health chief executive Bob Williams told RNZ Pacific children as young as six and seven, attracted by sweet flavours, were getting hold of vaping devices from their own families.

"They're not directly buying from vendors or shops, but they do have access to these vape devices," Williams said.

"Families are not realising the bad effect these things will have to children, with what's contained in the liquid."

Williams said vaping has been promoted by tobacco companies as a less harmful alternative.

However, he believes evidence showed that it was not.

He said the continued rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) - a major cause of deaths in the Cook Islands - was the main reason for clamping down on tobacco and vape products.

The Cook Islands is a signatory of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which Williams said the new rules align with.

"Many countries around the world are at different stages of progressing to meet those convention requirements but not only because of that, it's also looking at what's happening here in the Cook Islands with the number of people that have been diagnosed for NCDs and that number has increased."

Need for tobacco alternative

Nick Dun, the manager of South Seas, a store in Rarotonga which sells e-cigarette products, said he thought vaping provided a better alternative to tobacco products.

"It means some people will unfortunately fall back into tobacco smoking which may be harder to give up in the future and will impact them financially," Dun said.

He said his business felt there was a need for alternatives to tobacco products.

"For a lot of people, they believed that they actually felt better and when they started vaping [they] didn't want to go back to tobacco smoking.

"For a percentage of our customers vaping was basically them trying to give up smoking and kind of the steppingstone to giving up."

However, he said some of his customers have indicated once vaping becomes outlawed, they are going to try give up smoking completely.

Dun thinks the tight rules will likely result in a black market for vape goods.

"When anything is made illegal and there is a demand still for it, unfortunately there will be people that will try smuggle them in some way.

"It will make it completely unregulated."

Dun added businesses not would risk going against the new rules because of the severity of the penalties.