Labour's reaction to teen vaping shows it hasn't learned from other addictive substances - ASH

It comes after Labour's plan managed to leave anti-smokers and anti-vapers disappointed.
It comes after Labour's plan managed to leave anti-smokers and anti-vapers disappointed. Photo credit: Getty Images


Labour's plan to tackle youth vaping has managed to disappoint both anti-smoking and anti-vaping groups.

Teen smoking rates have dropped over the past 20 years, the latest Action for Smokefree 2025 (ASH) survey found - daily use falling from over 15 percent of Year 10s in 2000 to just 1.1 percent in 2022. But vaping has gone from non-existent in the early 2010s to 10.1 percent last year.

A separate survey conducted by the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation and the Secondary Principals' Association in 2021 found 26 percent of all secondary students had vaped in the past week, nearly 20 percent using them daily.

Labour on Tuesday announced it would limit the number of vape stores nationwide to 600 - about half the present total - and require all stores selling vapes, including service stations, dairies and other retailers, to have a licence.

Along with beefing up the fines for selling to underage users, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told Morning Report the proposed changes would make a "big difference" to the availability of vapes to teenagers.

"We've done a lot of things already. We introduced the minimum purchasing age so that vapes can only be sold to over-18s, recently made changes to remove disposable vapes from circulation and to restrict marketing, to restrict the flavours.

"We're now going further and saying, as we're doing with tobacco, we're actually going to reduce the number of outlets that you can buy vapes from."

Labour's health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall said the party was determined to make sure the regulations remained in the long term.

She said the licensing regime would need to apply a fair process to consider retailers' applications, and the government could consider including limits to closeness of schools and marae.

"You could make proximity to schools, marae, other places, part of that ... I don't see why it shouldn't be, yes, that's the direction we want to go with it."

Vape-Free Kids organiser Tammy Downer told Morning Report the changes would do nothing to address the availability of vapes.

"They're only talking about specialist vape stores - these are the stores that are the dedicated ones popping up everywhere only selling vapes. They're talking about cutting those to 600 - we've had 71 of those open in the last 77 days since they left the door wide open with their last policy announcement.

"They haven't even put a time frame on when they would expect this cap of 600 to apply for specialist vape stores. So yeah, there's going to be more and more kids every day accessing vapes. They currently and still can get them in this policy from every dairy, supermarket and service station."

As for the new licensing regime and stiffer penalties for selling to kids, Downer said they would be useless without proper enforcement.

"When the… authority approves stores today there's no consideration or criteria applied to those stores. They don't even visit the store. So I don't expect that the licensing of dairies, how would that change anything? …

"There is no check today. There is no check - they don't even visit the site. They hand them out like lollies… What's the point of licensing if there's no one to enforce anything?"

She said if the intention was for vapes to be a cessation tool for people trying to quit smoking, they should only be sold in pharmacies.

Action for Smokefree 2025 spokesperson Ben Youdan, also appearing on Morning Report, said the prescription model was not working in Australia.

"The youth vaping rate in Australia has gone up at similar rates to it has in Aotearoa. Their smoking rates have remained higher than ours, it's youth smoking rates as well.

"And almost the entire youth use in Australia is driven by the black market and illicit product, which is an even more dangerous situation to be in.

"Plus, the prescription model puts vapes into a system which is inherently unfair as well. It puts it into a system that's not accessed by the communities who smoke for various reasons, including systemic inequalities…

Hipkins agreed, saying making vapes prescription-only would get in the way of adults trying to quit traditional cigarettes.

"I don't want vapes to be less available than cigarettes and therefore people still continue to smoke cigarettes, but by reducing it down so that there's the same availability of vapes as there are of cigarettes, we can make sure that it is only being used for that purpose, which is to transition people from cigarettes to vaping."

He said that expert advice he received said the same.

"They actually think that that will result in more people smoking, which is far worse. So we've been trying to get the balance right here. We do want to make sure vapes are available for people who are giving up smoking, but we also don't want to see… this increase in young people taking up vaping."

Youdan said the 600 figure seemed "random" and "blunt", and enforcement of the current rules would achieve more.

Downer asked what was "more important": "The number of people who smoke, or the number of kids that are getting addicted every day? What's the bigger number?"

'A lot of panic'

While Youdan acknowledged the rise in youth vaping, he said there was "a lot of panic" in Labour's reaction that could make it worse.

"My concern is, if we look at the current law, for example, it's made it illegal to vape on school premises, which in theory is absolutely fine, but we've seen a massive rise in punitive approaches to vaping - approaches which are sort of stigmatising young people who vape, making the behaviour covert, and not learning from lessons and things such as cannabis or alcohol."

The ASH survey found a slight drop in 'regular' vaping amongst Year 10 students in 2022 - dipping from 20.2 percent in 2021 to 18.2 percent last year, the first fall recorded in the survey's history. The percentage of Year 10s who reported 'never' vaping also fell, from 42.7 percent to 40.1 percent - also the first-ever drop.

"I think we need to be careful about calling it a generation of addicts or young people who are addicted, because I don't think that's the case," said Youdan.

"We do have a lot of young people who are experimenting with vaping, who are using vapes, using vapes infrequently, and there is certainly a portion who are showing signs of addiction.

"The danger is we throw broad-brush approaches at that problem rather than looking at, how do we treat those who have some dependence on vaping? And for the others, how do we approach vaping in a way that takes lessons from other substances?"

However, Education Minister Jan Tinetti said vaping was a "big problem" in schools

"I have principals that tell me this is just about as their number one issue - particularly in secondary," she said. "I think out of the four schools that I went into last week, every single one of them brought vaping up to me."

She said Labour's policy would help with the problem, but acknowledged more was needed.

"The initiatives that we've announced this morning as a Labour party, for our manifesto, will go some way towards that but this needs to be a wraparound with everybody," she said.

"We've already got Ministry of Health working with Ministry of Education but I've actually asked my officials to go back and see where else we can be pushing into in this area to support schools: Are there other areas such as the stop smoking, cessation programme - can we use that for vaping? Can we get more of a health focus there? But also what do the schools need to help from a regulatory point of view?"

He said the biggest contributor to the rise in youth vaping over the past decade was the government's lack of action over many years.

"We've just seen this rapid rise during a time where the government just wasn't acting on it. They just let the industry grow rapidly. We saw very aggressive marketing, particularly from people like British American Tobacco, who were running ads on TV and sponsoring events and festivals.

"So we're stuck with the problem that came from a lot of inaction for a long time, and now trying to fix that."