health & science

Is vaping NZ’s last gasp for a smokefree 2025?

A light-regulatory hand and promotion of vaping could be needed to hit the goal of reducing New Zealand’s smokers to 5 percent of the population. 

New Zealand loses 5000 people every year because of a faulty delivery system.

University of Ottawa adjunct professor of law David Sweanor is of the view people smoke for nicotine, but die because of the tar in cigarettes. He believes that for decades, traditional cigarettes have been a lethally-flawed nicotine delivery device, and has been involved in suing tobacco companies.

Despite years of stop-smoking campaigns and tax increases, 13 percent of New Zealanders still smoke. In order to reach the Smokefree Aotearoa goal of 5 percent by 2025, he recommends a 'surge' approach to switch smokers to tar-free vaping. 

Public health ‘surges’ are a concept used in the management of emergencies. Sweanor argues that without drastic change, the 2025 target will be missed. 

Data from the New Zealand Health Surveys shows if the trend since 2011 continues, the 2025 target will not be met. Image: A surge strategy for Smokefree Aotearoa 2025

He and other anti-smoking experts compiled a report for anti-smoking group ASH, which suggests e-cigarettes and products that heat, but don’t burn, tobacco should escape overly-harsh rules so they’re a viable option for people who want to quit smoking.

The regulatory framework for vaping products is currently being reviewed. The report makes different recommendations to what are in a Cabinet paper discussing regulating smoke-free nicotine products.

The report points to Japan as an example of what could be achieved. Three years after the introduction of heated tobacco, cigarette sales fell 33 percent.

“The UK has over three million people who have switched to vaping, there’s roughly two million of them who are now exclusively vapers. This is a huge public health breakthrough.”

Sweanor, who has been in favour of past tax increases, said he didn't think raising tax on cigarettes any further would reduce smoking rates. The current price for a packet of 25 cigarettes is around $35, meaning someone who smokes 20 a day spends around $9000 a year.

“I’d focus on how do you get people onto alternatives.”

A pack-a-day smoker who switched to vaping would pay around $900 a year. Sweanor hopes any tax regime imposed on nicotine products doesn't kill these potential cost savings.

Is vaping safe?

Vaping is estimated to be 95 percent safer than smoking cigarettes. Sweanor compares it to caffeine addiction.

“It’s not risk-free, people die from caffeine overdose, but it’s very low risk.”

His view is backed by Massey University’s Dr Penny Truman.

While there are differences between caffeine and nicotine (they affect different receptors), both are neurotoxins.

Truman said side effects of a nicotine overdose were shakiness and nausea.

“That’s probably a good thing as it makes you stop smoking or vaping with nicotine.”

There have been some reports of lung inflammation in people who have vaped, but Truman thinks it’s early days and is an area where more research will be done. 

“Although there have been many claims of potential harm from vaping, I have seen none that stand close to being of serious concern.”

Recent vaping-related deaths have been among users of cannabis products, Truman said. Her advice was to steer clear of cannabis products until more was known.

Another study suggested vaping might cause lung and bladder cancer in mice, but the researchers said more work would need to be done to see if the results were the same in humans. 

What about kids?

Sweanor believes some of the claims about widespread use in young people is hype. He said the reports were based on experimental use rather than habitual.

“They’re saying ‘Have you done any vaping in the last 30 days?’ and then saying ‘Oh my God, there’s an addiction crisis’.”

He argues the “wowsers” who make a fuss about vaping highlight the range of flavours and talk about it becoming a trend social media influencers are picking up is actually contributing to its appeal.

“It’s like telling a kid not to stick a pea up their nose.”

In New Zealand, the number of young people smoking is dropping, and vaping products are not allowed to be sold to people under 18. 

Sweanor and others caution against banning some flavours that might be seen as attractive to youth. The argument is flavours are one of the factors that attract adult smokers to make the switch. Banning them might impact those smokers wanting to make that switch. 

He suggests regulation to control ingredients, descriptions and flavours, but not outright bans. 

Sweanor is also against banning vaping in smokefree places, a measure suggested in the Cabinet paper despite no evidence of second-hand harm. The precautionary measure is in place to avoid vaping being 'normalised'. To Sweanor, forcing people trying to give up smoking into smoking areas makes little sense.

“Isn't that like saying if you want to try to deal with your alcoholism, you’re allowed to go to an AA meeting, but they're only legally allowed to be held in a bar during happy hour?”

Are non-smokers targeted in advertising?

Auckland University of Technology senior lecturer of marketing Dr Sommer Kapitan points out the current marketing for vaping doesn't appear to be aimed at existing smokers. 

In the first six months of 2019, Nielsen reported $2 million was spent advertising vaping-related products in New Zealand - a 190 percent increase on the previous year. With around 500,000 smokers in New Zealand, that's roughly $4 per smoker.

"That is dangerous, and highly worrisome. We have seen these tactics before. Clouds of vape, vapes held in hands by young professionals, vapes in use at youth-driven music festivals. Replace this imagery with a lit cigarette, and this looks like big tobacco all over again."

Kapitan thinks vaping should be regulated.

“The promotion, marketing, sales and use of vape products should be regulated like cigarettes are regulated in New Zealand."

Sweanor thinks it's all about regulating intelligently, and said there were examples of how to do it right. This included providing information about the benefits of switching as well as the fact vaping, while low risk, isn't risk-free.

"The UK doesn't seem to have any significant problem with young people. They're telling people the truth."

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