The deadly side-effects of New Zealand's smoke-free policies

  • 31/05/2018

It's World Smokefree Day on Thursday, and the Government is continuing its work towards the Smokefree 2025 goal - but what are the downsides to New Zealand's fight to be smoke-free?

About 500 people die each year in New Zealand from smoking or second-hand exposure. Kids are more at risk from second-hand smoke than adults, as it increases their risk of getting cancer.

But there is evidence the methods used to target our smoking - including excise increases and a lack of support for e-cigarette use - has had significant drawbacks, including an upsurge in violence and health costs.

Lung cancer kills more Kiwis than any other type of cancer, and there is a direct relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Newshub national correspondent Patrick Gower wrote of his mother dying of cancer at 56, calling it a "painful and degrading way to die".

One of the main ways of reducing the harm from smoking is vaping, but the industry has faced an uphill battle in New Zealand after years of Government inaction. It took a Wellington District Court ruling earlier this year to effectively legalise e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.

NZVAPOR managing director QJ Satchell says a smoke-free New Zealand will only be achieved if we take a multi-pronged approach.

"Vaping has been proven to be at least 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes," Mr Satchell told Newshub.

"Vaping has proven itself as a great alternative - it is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people have already made the move to vaping, away from smoking."

Along with the cancers caused by the failure to provide safer smoke-free alternatives, the failure to change the law has meant children continue to be harmed by nicotine products.

Nicotine is one of the most deadly poisons in the world, and can be fatal for small children. The first signs of poisoning are stimulatory, including dizziness, nausea and increased heart rate. After this the body begins to slow down, which can lead to seizures, breathing difficulties and coma.

Last year, 10 people in New Zealand were hospitalised with nicotine poisoning - and children were half of those worst affected.

Of these 10, three were aged between newborn age and four, two were aged five and 14, and five were aged 19 or over.

Most of these events involved nicotine patches, gum or lozenges - though there was one instance of eating a cigarette. The New Zealand Initiative research fellow Jenesa Jeram says the risks of nicotine poisoning are not a new problem.

"Traditional nicotine replacement therapy (patches, gum, lozenges) are responsible for many of these poisonings to date, yet few would argue or deny that they play an important and beneficial role in smoking cessation," she told Newshub.

"The lesson here is that an overly risk-averse public health framework might at the same time harm the health of smokers wanting to quit."

Statistics from the Ministry of Health show only one of the hospitalisations in New Zealand was due to e-cigarette refill.

However overseas, the US Food and Drug Administration has announced they're taking action against companies marketing e-liquids that look like child-friendly food products.

Newshub found evidence showing similar products are being sold in New Zealand, including items resembling flavoured whipped cream.

The Government is looking to align the regulations around vaping with those for cigarettes, although this won't come into force until late 2018.

Ms Jeram says there is a trade-off between promoting vaping to smokers wanting to cut down or quit, and protecting children from all possible risks.

"In the absence of a formal regulatory framework in New Zealand, manufacturers largely appear to be self-regulating and complying with international standards of safety," she says.

"The Ministry of Health are currently considering how to regulate these vaping products, but they should start by observing the ways retailers and manufacturers are already trading responsibly.

"Any regulations should be light-touch and should not inhibit smokers' ability to switch to less harmful alternatives. The best thing policymakers can do is monitor the environment and the outcomes, and design regulations around actual risks rather than perceived risks."

Mr Satchell says he supports "light regulation" of the vaping industry.

"By regulating the manufacturing part of the vaping market we will be able to mitigate many of the risks that are associated with nicotine," he says.

"If there is a rule that tells a manufacturing facility to use a certain lid, or bottle, or strength; we will almost immediately mitigate most of the possible risks that nicotine products have to the user."

There has also been an upsurge in violence against dairy owners after government excise increases raised the price of a packet of cigarettes to over $25.

Dr Hayden McRobbie from the Counties Manukau Stop Smoking Program says the increasing price "certainly influences" the increasing number of dairy robberies, suggesting smokes should be taken out of dairies completely to protect owners.

Hapai te Hauora chief executive Lance Norman agrees, telling The AM Show in April tax increases haven't had an equal effect on everyone.

"It is having a negative impact on other areas of the community, so we need to work out how we address that issue."