23 Aug 2023

Vaping regulations: Fewer than 100 infringement notices issued to retailers

11:47 am on 23 August 2023

A man vaping Photo: AFP/ ANP MAG - Koen van Weel

Fewer than a hundred infringement notices have been issued to vape retailers since enforcement began last year.

Ministry of Health figures supplied under the Official Information Act show fines totalling $42,900 since June 2022.

There were 96 infringement notices, the majority for selling to people under the age of 18.

Ministry of Health public health policy and regulation acting group manager Alison Cossar said fines for selling to underaged buyers could range from $200 to $1000.

Cossar said enforcement was still ramping up.

Officers empowered to enforce vaping regulations were expected to double in "coming months".

There were currently 29 enforcement officers operating across the motu with another 32 being trained or recruited.

Cossar blamed the delayed start of vaping enforcement on the Covid pandemic.

"There were disruptions to this work due to the role regional public health services had during the Covid-19 response," she said.

More than 1300 specialist vape retailers were listed on Te Whatu Ora's Health advisory and regulatory platform and thousands more dairies, service stations and grocery outlets sell a limited range of vape products.

Christchurch mum and Vape Free Kids member Anna Stewart said the enforcement figures were a shock but not surprising.

"The horse has already long bolted. Regulations, or enforcement of them, at the very minimum is the only thing that can curb the number of the young people that are picking this up, but we're not doing it. They have seemingly more resources dedicated for providing vape stores than they do for monitoring compliance of them," Stewart said.

She shared with RNZ screenshots of online comments from a local dairy saying they would continue to sell vapes to underaged customer's despite being caught out three times and fined.

Stewart said she sent her teenage son to the store to see if they would sell to him and was shocked when he emerged moments later with the restricted product.

"I went straight back into the store and said 'what does the sign mean if you don't enforce it?' and they just looked at me and said nothing. There were three other young men in the queue behind me who were clearly coming in to buy their vapes," Stewart said.

A snapshot survey done last year by ASH showed nearly 20 percent of year 10 students admitted to vaping regularly.

"These stores are continuing to sell to young children so what does that say about the value that we place on the health of our young people?" Stewart said.

Government responds with penalties

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins speaking to media at bridge run

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said if elected, a Labour government would reduce the number of vape retailers to 600 or less, putting hundreds of speciality vape stores out of business.

Hipkins said they would increase fines, and make all retailers selling vapes apply for a licence.

"We have already made it illegal to sell vapes to anyone under 18. But the ongoing uptake suggests the current penalties are not a strong enough deterrent. A Labour government will increase penalties to adults who supply vape products to underaged children by 100 percent, from up to $5000, to up to $10,000. We will also increase penalties for retailers found to be selling vaping products to underage children from up to $10,000, to up to $15,000," Hipkin's said.

Vape-Free Kids organiser Tammy Downer said the move still left in excess of 6000 stores selling the products.

"They talked today about how they brought in the under 18 ban but there's been no enforcement of that ban. You've got a handful of enforcers working for the vape authority and they're just not stopping people. We've got so many parents that are everyday sharing examples of stores that are selling to their kids and there's just no threat, there's nothing that's stopping them," Downer said.

Downer said Labour also seem confused as to what the actual value of fines currently being levelled at retailers breaking the law were.

She said the single dedicated vaping enforcement officer in the Canterbury region had only signed off nine infringement notices in the past year.

"And that's not the $10,000 fine that they're talking about, that's the $500 fine. The $10,000 [fine] doesn't start to apply until they've had four strikes and that involves prosecution so that takes a massive amount of time before they get to that point," she said.

Vaping Industry Association head Jonathan Devery was also sceptical of Labour's plans.

He said the association was pleased the government had finally taken action to bolster penalties for retailers who sell to youth.

"We have expressed concern over the continued lack of enforcement by authorities who appear to have 'bulk issued' licences and are allowing the 'store-within-a-store' model to proliferate. Rather than enforcing the regulations, the government has continued to issue licences to retailers that do not meet the requirements of the regulations, and rather than take responsibility for its failure to take action, it is trying to use the industry as a political football to score points," Devery said.

Devery said specialist vape retailers were the best place for people to get information on how to quit tobacco products successfully and clamping down on the number of specialist vape retailers would derail those trying to quit smoking and force underage vapers even further underground.

"Reducing accessibility to vaping will simply drive smokers to black market cigarettes which will no doubt become readily available from criminal organisations as these new restrictions are rolled out. And as we can see from our neighbours in Australia, an illicit market has resulted in even higher levels of youth vaping than we have in Aotearoa," he said.

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