Is the government swapping one bad habit for another by encouraging smokers to move to vaping, as a way of curing their addiction?
Associate health minister Jenny Salesa thinks vaping is a useful quit-smoking tool – to the extent that she’s launched a website (vapingfacts.health.nz) to provide credible information on the issue. She is clear in emphasising that vaping is for adults – the government’s not suggesting that those who don’t already smoke take up vaping.
But are vapers just exchanging one bad habit for another?
Ben Youdan is an advisor for ASH and an expert on tobacco control. He says the first generation of e-cigarettes – the ones that looked a bit like cigarettes - have been around for about a decade in New Zealand, but it’s only in the past three to five years they’ve really started to take off. About 5 percent of the population now uses them.
The re-fillable tank system used by vapers is a fourth-generation iteration of the e-cigarette.
It works in a similar way to an asthma inhaler, where a propylene-glycol mix has flavour and maybe nicotine added to it. Then it’s heated up and the vapour is inhaled.
“It delivers nicotine to the blood system in a very similar way to a cigarette but the key difference is, it’s not combusted,” says Youdan.
“When you smoke a cigarette it’s the smoke that does harm – the by-product of setting fire to something and inhaling it to get the active ingredient, which is nicotine, into the bloodstream. Whereas a vape device …. doesn’t have all the very harmful by-products of combustion that you get in a cigarette.”
That includes formaldehyde, lead, ammonia and arsenic.
Youdan says the broad consensus is that vaping is about five percent the harm of a cigarette.
“They’re not completely harmless, and not 100 percent safe, but they’re substantially less harmful than cigarettes and smoking,” he says. There is probably still some harm done to the respiratory system.
But he warns that vaping is still relatively new, so unlike cigarettes where we have 70 years of data available about the harm they do, we don’t have that yet for vaping. The estimates of harm are based around what’s known about the chemicals in the vapour. Some additives, for example cinnamon, are known to have slightly high levels of potential carcinogens.
Youdan says the government’s taking a well considered, evidence-based approach to vaping, which is particularly good.
But other experts say we must also ensure that efforts to get people to quit smoking cigarettes continue – and that means continuing to pile on the tax to make it a very expensive habit, and keeping up awareness campaigns of how much damage they do.