A collage of various vaping devices is displayed against a vibrant blue background with a halftone pattern, reminiscent of pop art.
Chemicals from the device itself can end up in our blood, urine and saliva. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyJune 7, 2024

The ongoing battle to enforce our anti-vaping regulations

A collage of various vaping devices is displayed against a vibrant blue background with a halftone pattern, reminiscent of pop art.
Chemicals from the device itself can end up in our blood, urine and saliva. (Image: Archi Banal)

If vape retailers are brazenly bypassing government regulations, can anything be done to stop more young people getting hooked? 

New research from Otago University released this morning has revealed almost all specialist vape stores in the greater Wellington area have been flouting measures brought in late last year to counter the youth vaping problem. The study, which has been published by the New Zealand Medical Journal today, was carried out in January using a “mystery shopper”, a few months after rules were introduced that limited the strength of disposable vapes, and required they have a removable battery or child safety mechanism.

It found that single-use vapes remained available for $10 or less in most stores, and reusable starter kits were also widely available for between $10 and $20. Discounted high-nicotine products were being sold for as little as $2.50 each. The new research also showed ID checks were limited in the stores visited: half asked for ID, but a third went ahead with the sale without asking for it (the mystery shopper was over the age of 18, so the stores were not breaking the rules). According to the researchers, the study was the first to audit compliance with New Zealand’s vaping-related legislation. And while it was limited to one part of the country, the researchers say it’s “likely that the problems identified are systemic and nationwide”.

Specialist vape stores evading the rules is nothing new, though the scale of this study makes it especially interesting. A quick Google search finds a sea of headlines describing anti-vape rules as ineffective. Earlier this year, The Spinoff reported that some vape retailers were openly breaking another set of anti-vaping regulations, intended to limit what flavours could be sold for reusable devices. One outlet went so far as to advertise a “non-compliant” vape sale, selling outlawed products at vastly reduced prices. A report by RNZ’s Anneke Smith in April described the “bending and breaking” of the rules by vape retailers as “pervasive”, noting that “one need only travel about 50 metres from parliament to buy an illegal vape”. According to Smith’s report, enforcement from officials has also been slim: 79 infringement notices have been issued from 767 compliance checks, with just one prosecution.

Labour’s health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall said the findings in the Otago University study showed more needed to be done to enforce the existing rules. “In my view the Ministry [of Health] is not exercising its ability to take more prosecutions for these breaches,” she told The Bulletin. But the ministry said it was “putting greater resources into compliance and monitoring” and was working with Te Whatu Ora/Health New Zealand to “increase our compliance monitoring work to ensure the industry is following the law”. 

It’s also about accessibility. The new research shone a light on the location of vape stores in Wellington, finding “clusterings” in the inner-city areas “where young people congregate”, while suburban retailers were “often located in communities with high socio-economic deprivation”. Almost half were located inside other stores, like dairies, in order to sell products that cannot be sold outside of a specialist retailer. A study in March found that almost a third of the country’s vape stores were within a five-minute walk 0f a school, as this RNZ report explained. Verrall said that a limit on nationwide store numbers would help avoid certain communities being targeted, something the Labour government had proposed. The researchers also raised concerns over the ability of vapes to be sold at a discount, noting that specialist vape retailers were exempt from a law that prohibited discounted distribution of regulated products, like tobacco. 

But what can be done to address our vaping epidemic? The minister responsible for vaping legislation, Casey Costello, told The Bulletin the study’s findings were “disappointing but not unexpected”, and highlighted the government’s forthcoming ban on disposable vaping products (there’s currently no timeline for this to be implemented). “I will be taking specific proposals to cabinet soon,” she said. However, the researchers questioned whether this would have the desired outcome, saying it could “lead to heavy discounting of these products”. The lead-up to the introduction of regulations last year saw “fire sales” being held to try to clear out soon-to-be-outlawed stock.

As reported by The Spinoff earlier this year, the vape industry is often quick to find workarounds to new regulations – such as releasing compliant reusable devices at the same price point as outlawed products. “Continuous innovation allows vape companies to evade regulations while undercutting competitors’ pricing,” the researchers noted. The paper’s co-author Jude Ball, in comments to the Science Media Centre, recommended a law to prevent discounting and to clarify “ambiguities” in the current law as the industry has proved to be “adept at exploiting any weaknesses to circumvent or push the boundaries set by government”. Enforcement efforts also need to be stepped up, Ball said. Costello agreed that “regulations need to be backed up by stronger monitoring and enforcement” and said Health NZ had been “increasing the number of enforcement officers and training them to optimise their effect and capacity to respond”.

In a piece published by Newsroom, Auckland University’s Kelly Burrowes referenced an American study that revealed 38.8% of the young people surveyed said they’d likely stop vaping if the flavours were limited to just tobacco or menthol. There’s also the prescription-only approach seen in Australia, as Zoe Madden-Smith from TVNZ’s Re News looked at in a documentary this year. Smith’s report noted retailers have been caught disguising nicotine products as nicotine-free. The next tranche of regulations, such as requiring reusable vaping products to have removable batteries, has been pushed back until October. That delay has upset those fighting to see vape products more tightly restricted, The Press reported in March.

This is an extended extract from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s daily morning news wrap. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

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