12 Jun 2023

First, a smoke-free generation – next, a vape-free one?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 12 June 2023

Young people are getting hooked on nicotine through vaping with world-leading smokefree laws that aim to create a generation of people who don't get addicted to cigarettes, could we take a similar approach with other nicotine-laced products?


Many flavours of vapes will be banned soon. Photo: Tom Taylor / RNZ

By the end of 2025, less than five percent of New Zealanders will be smokers, if the Smokefree Aotearoa goal works out.

And, with what are seen as some of the harshest laws in the world, there's a lifetime ban on young people born on or after January 1, 2009 buying cigarettes - meaning a whole generation of Kiwis will be tobacco-free.

While our rangatahi might not ever take up smoking thanks to the tough legislation, there are doubts new vaping rules are strong enough to stop the alarming rise in young vapers and, ultimately, turn the numbers around.  

Otago University's Professor Janet Hoek says the new rules don't do enough to deter young vapers, but still, she reckons New Zealand should aspire to be world-leading when it comes to beating the youth vaping "epidemic".

"I think it's a really important goal that we should be looking at. We've introduced a smokefree generation, but there's no reason why we couldn't be thinking about creating a nicotine-free generation," says Hoek, co-director of Aspire Aotearoa, a research centre focused on smoking and vaping.

Hoek and Aspire co-director Anaru Waa tell The Detail how they've watched vaping levels rise in young New Zealanders in recent years, documented through a range of studies by anti-smoking and health groups.

To Waa, vapes are like alcoholic RTDs (ready-to-drink), targeted at young people with their sweet, sickly flavours.

"It was the flavours that got young people into drinking alcohol back in the 80s. It's the same issue, but it's rearing its head under a different product," he says.

"These products are designed to catch you. The flavours are really appealing, the devices are discreet, much more so than they have been in the past, it's easy to become addicted."

Waa worries campaigns to discourage youth vaping won't be as effective as they might have been in the past with smoking.

"It just happens so quickly, it's so insidious," he says.

Vape-use bucks the trend of other risky behaviours in young people, with drinking, drugs and unsafe sex declining. Hoek says increased vaping reflects the aggressive marketing tactics and a two-year period when it was unregulated.

"We saw it in dance parties and music events and rock festivals," she says. "It becomes very easy to facilitate uptake, particularly when there are booths there where young people could try the devices."

The devices were presented as lifestyle accessories, rather than quit smoking tools.

Hoek has talked to young vapers as part of her research into the attraction of it. It comes down to curiosity, peer pressure, stress relief, good flavours, and they're easily accessible.

Some enjoy the head-spins of the nicotine hit, and vaping can help with social anxiety, but the addiction very quickly takes over.

"They have to find the times when they can vape, they have to make excuses to go into places where they're able to vape and instead of managing their stress and anxiety, it actually creates stress," she says. 

Under the regulations announced last week, disposable and reusable vape sales will be banned; flavour names such as cotton candy must be changed to more generic labels, like berry; and new vape shops are not allowed within 300 metres of a school or marae. 

Hoek says the rules aren't tight enough and outlines to The Detail a raft of "win-win measures" that would discourage young users, while still making vapes accessible to people trying to quit smoking.

"I think we should stop thinking about an either or choice between either supporting people who smoke to switch to a reduced harm alternative or protecting young people." 

Hear more about how young people are getting addicted to nicotine via vaping in the full podcast episode.

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