A 40% increase in the number of specialty vape stores is fueling what advocates maintain is an epidemic of youth vaping, reports Don Rowe.
In February of this year there were 666 registered vape retailers in Aotearoa. Today that number has reached more than 950. Letitia Harding, the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation’s chief executive, says the booming market is outstripping growth in other areas traditionally considered a public health concern.
“To put that into perspective there is a combined total of 267 KFCs and McDonald’s restaurants across New Zealand. We are hearing firsthand from communities who are saying they are sick and tired of vape stores popping up all over the place, with their products showcased in store front windows.”
Under existing legislation, only specialty vape stores are able to sell flavoured juices and disposable vaping devices, with dairies and service stations limited to tobacco or mint flavours less appealing to young non-smokers. But Harding says retailers are exploiting ambiguous regulations by partitioning existing premises into two separate stores. Research from September last year found that around 15% of specialty vape stores are such conversions.
“This is a loophole that many retailers have been using to enable them to sell more vape products. And as far as people going in and checking their registration and so on, we’re not seeing it.”
There is widespread alarm at the density of retailers. In Dargaville, local health agencies identified 15 retailers within a 1km radius, reported RNZ. Kaipara District Mayor Jason Smith said the council was concerned about a lack of national guidelines to control the “epidemic”. In April, vape retailer Shosha opened its 100th store, becoming one of New Zealand’s largest retailers. Globally, the vape industry is set to reach $43b USD by 2023.
Harding says the proliferation is directly linked to the number of young non-smokers developing potent nicotine addictions. And researchers from the Australian National University, reviewing almost 200 international studies, found that non-smoking vapers are up to three times as likely to start smoking than those who don’t vape. In Australia, liquid nicotine is prescription-only.
According to the Ministry of Health’s most recent New Zealand Health Survey, the number of New Zealanders aged between 15 and 17 who vape daily tripled from 2 to 6% between 2018 and 2021, while those aged 18 to 24 grew from 5 to 15%.
An Action for Smokefree 2025 (ASH) survey found almost one in five Māori girls aged 14 to 15 reported vaping daily in 2021, and the number of Māori boys who vape at least once a month grew from 19% in 2019 to 30% in 2021.
Harding says the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation (ARF) regularly hears from parents concerned their teenagers are so heavily addicted they get up during the night to vape, or take their devices with them to the shower. Some schools are beginning to install detectors in the bathrooms, says Harding, and are confiscating up to 20 devices a week. And teenagers over 18 who have purchased nicotine-free vape products online have been sent complementary nicotine products by vape retailers.
“It’s like big tobacco always said: they’re not in the business of cigarettes, they’re in the business of nicotine, because that’s what keeps people coming back.”
Proponents point to vaping’s lack of harm compared to cigarettes, and the efficacy of vaping in smoking cessation. But research by Janet Hoek, professor of public health at the University of Otago, and Lindsay Robertson, senior research fellow in the department of preventive and social medicine, found the increase in youth vaping exceeds the decline in smoking, meaning there is a net gain in the number of young people using nicotine products.
The research was conducted before the rise in cheap disposable vaping products, which often contain levels of nicotine as high as 60mg/ml. A direct comparison to cigarettes is difficult due to the wide range of devices and vaping products, but one study indicated a 50mg pod delivers the equivalent nicotine of a packet of cigarettes. In the European Union, vaping products are limited to a maximum of 20mg/ml. Disposable vapes have also been criticised for creating environmental harm as thousands of depleted lithium batteries are sent to landfill or discarded in the street.
Harding says the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Amendment Bill, currently at the select committee stage, is an opportunity to introduce controls on the nicotine content of vape products, and to prevent streetfront displays of sleek, colourful vape devices. The aesthetics of vape products are in stark contrast to the grisly corpses and diseased lungs of cigarette packaging – all sleek surfaces, tropical fruits, candyfloss clouds. Healthcare professionals advising the ARF hope to see that banned.
Dr Stuart Jones, respiratory consultant and advisor on the ARF’s scientific advisory board, says the bill is a “game-changer” for addressing the harm caused by cigarettes, but that it must also curb the growing numbers of young people taking up vaping.
“We already have far too many of our youth addicted to nicotine from the use of vaping products. We cannot wait another few years for better regulations around Ends (Electronic Nicotine Delivery System) products, as the scale of this problem will only continue to grow. We need to get the nicotine content in vaping products reduced as a matter of urgency. We need to get the retailers out from our school surroundings. And we need better policing of these retailers.”
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.