Educators and public health experts want New Zealand to follow Australia's lead and ban recreational vaping to address what they describe as a growing epidemic in young people.
Some school principals here are reporting children as young as eight being caught with e-cigarettes at school, while other children struggle with addiction.
Ministry of Health statistics show the number of young New Zealanders aged 15 to 17 who vape every day has quadrupled in three years, from 2 percent in 2018-19 to 8 percent in 2021-22.
For rangatahi Māori, particularly girls, vaping rates are even higher.
Australia's crackdown includes a ban on recreational use of e-cigarettes, limiting vape flavours, bringing in "pharmaceutical-style" packaging, reducing nicotine content, banning disposable vapes, and halving imports of non-prescription e-cigarettes.
Our government has ruled out following suit - at least in this term.
Dr Anita Jagroop-Dearing, associate professor at Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke's Bay, is researching why students vape, and how to bring rates down.
She told Nine to Noon the results of an ASH study looking at smoking and vaping rates amongst Year 10 students (aged 14 and 15) painted a worrying picture of what she considered an "epidemic".
While smoking rates in that age group had dropped from just under 30 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2015, vaping - which is often promoted as a useful tool to help smokers quit - had increased markedly in recent years.
Jagroop-Dearing said she did not think the effect of vaping on young people had been considered when it was introduced as a smoking-cessation tool.
"Yes, great, we reduced the smoking rate for adults but ... the vaping rate is increasing in ... young people who never even smoked and [are] now picking up vaping," she said.
"I don't think that New Zealand was prepared for just what a drastic
impact this would have on our young students."
Jagroop-Dearing said research showed vaping had an effect on the developing brain and on cardiovascular and respiratory risk.
"The research is out there, it's in the literature and I just feel that the government is not paying attention or listening to us or looking at the research."
She said the data proved students were becoming addicted.
"We see that there are behavioural issues and the prevalence data that is already out there ... I would consider this an epidemic."
'We had to do something about it'
The principal of a primary school in Hamilton told Nine to Noon his school decided to act after noticing a spike in students being caught with vapes last year.
Shane Ngatai, of Rhode Street School in Dinsdale, Hamilton, said pupils as young as eight had been caught in possession of vapes.
"It got to a point where I think I'd collected over a thousand dollars' worth of vapes in a six-month period, and it just continued to grow, so we had to do something about it."
He said the school had managed to almost eradicate the problem by working with the community to address the issue.
Students who were caught vaping were taught about the dangers of the behaviour in the first instance, he said.
Parents were also contacted, with the school deliberately avoiding a punitive approach in favour of a health-focused one.
If students were caught vaping a second time, they spent time with Ngatai on an "in-school suspension", he said.
"We went deeper into the reasons why they're vaping, and obviously ... it's illegal if you're under 18, so there was a component around that as well, and we brought in our community constable to talk to these students as a collective."
He acknowledged that many parents in the school community were trying to give up smoking themselves so legitimately had a vape in their homes, however if students were caught a third time, a community police officer would visit the student's home to try and re-engage with the family about the dangers vaping posed to young people.
Family members were often horrified when they discovered their child had taken a vape from home and brought it to school, Ngatai said.
Students were stood down from school for three days if they continued to vape at school after that, he said, "which really put the pressure back on the family too - especially if they're working. Someone would've had to take time off work to look after their child".
"We found that that sort of slowed everything down and by the beginning of this year, I think in the last eight weeks, I've probably found two or three vapes compared to what I was finding last year."
He said the school's approach relied on the community collectively taking responsibility for all the children within it.
"If you see one of our kids vaping, come and tell us, because that's a health issue."
Cheap and colourful products
Both Ngatai and Jagroop-Dearing said the marketing of vape products to young people was a particular concern.
There were approximately seven vape shops in Rhode Street School's catchment, Ngatai said.
"The marketing is really targeting our kids: the bright colours, they look like fluoro pens - I couldn't believe the range that I've actually confiscated over this time - the shapes, the sizes, they're all easy to conceal."
Jagroop-Dearing agreed some of the issue was down to the "multi-billion-dollar targeting marketing to our young students".
The vape delivery devices were "sleek and slender and easy to use and colourful", she said.
Ngatai said the fact vape products were relatively inexpensive was also feeding into the problem and it would take strong leadership to tackle the issue through legislation.
"The fact that they are so cheap makes them so accessible to so many of our children."
Some children had been known to buy two vapes for $20 before on-selling one of them for $20, he said.
"There's that sort of misguided entrepreneurial spirit which we're also trying to turn around into more positive things - so rather than sell vapes, why not sell the excess fruit like the feijoas that are on the ground at the moment?
"We've managed to achieve that with some of our students."
Ngatai said similar issues had been seen with synthetic cannabis and the government needed to take action.
"I'm seeing five-year-olds; six-year-olds, pretending to smoke, but they're not smoking, they're pretending to vape, so it's endemic within the community and I think our health ministry, rather than saying 'we haven't got time to push legislation through' or whatever, they did it in a pandemic, and we've got an epidemic now, they should be taking Australia's lead and doing the same thing here."
He said making vape products available on prescription only would put them out of reach of young people.
No time for a crackdown like Australia's this term - Verrall
Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said the steps New Zealand had taken to restrict tobacco availability were exactly why vapes needed to be available to smokers trying to quit.
But she admitted the right balance had not been struck between what vaping was intended for, and what was actually happening.
"It is not good that young people are addicted, and vaping does cause addiction. So that's why we do want to move in terms of making them less attractive, less available, and also making sure that the law is enforced and there isn't sales to young people."
Verrall recently sought consultation on regulatory measures to make vaping less attractive to young people, such as changing the names of flavours, and ensuring vape shops could not set up near schools.
She expected to introduce some changes to the Smoked Tobacco Regulatory Regime soon, but something on the scale of Australia's crackdown would take much longer.
"I think in terms of moving to that step that Australia has done, that would require a legislative change."
Verrall said there was no time to make such a legislative change this term.