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Millions of disposable vapes could be headed for the scrapheap (Image: Tina Tiller)
Millions of disposable vapes could be headed for the scrapheap (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyDecember 12, 2023

New rules may see 10 million disposable vapes end up in the tip, retailer says

Millions of disposable vapes could be headed for the scrapheap (Image: Tina Tiller)
Millions of disposable vapes could be headed for the scrapheap (Image: Tina Tiller)

If they’re not sold off cheaply first, millions of soon-to-be-unsellable vaping products could be sent to landfill after new rules come in next week. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports.

Vape retailers are preparing for a new crackdown on disposable products, with one outlet saying it’s staring down the prospect of having to send 300,000 devices to landfill. And across the country’s
more than 600 specialist vape stores, there are claims it could end up being as many as 10 million devices. 

But environmental and health advocates say it will be worth it for New Zealand to have these products off the shelf.

Next Thursday, December 21, will see a major wave of the former government’s anti-vape regulations come into force. 

Announced earlier this year, the changes will mean certain vape devices, largely those identified as disposable or single use, will be outlawed unless they comply with new rules. While they won’t be illegal to possess, the rules will require all new vaping devices to have removable batteries, child safety features and reduced nicotine levels.

It means a significant amount of vaping devices are being sold off as quickly as possible ahead of the ban, raising concerns about consumers stockpiling them. And then there’s the question of stock that’s left over once the regulations kicks in, with some retailers admitting they may be forced to dump thousands of devices at the tip.

‘Appalling’ fire sales and concerns over stockpiling

The Vape Shop advertises itself as stocking “the largest range” of vape liquids in the southern hemisphere. It only has two brick and mortar stores, but a website selling hundreds of products.

Morris Lazootin from Michael Morris Limited, which trades as The Vape Shop, described the upcoming regulations as a “real conundrum”. The retailer is facing the possibility of having to dispose of more than 300,000 previously compliant vaping devices, amounting to around $7m of stock. 

For his store, the likely outcome for that stock is the tip. Lazootin said that from “industry-wide discussions”, the estimated impact was looking “pretty damn bleak”. 

“Between eight to 10 million vaping devices potentially ending up in landfills or, more worryingly, the blackmarket,” he said. 

The government’s blanket bans have created “a paradox”, said Lazootin, with legitimate businesses pushed “to the brink” and a potential blackmarket being fuelled, he says. In Australia, where vaping is prescription-only, there have been concerns that the demand for smoking alternatives has been driven underground.

In preparation for the new rules, outlets like The Vape Shop have been using “fire sales” to try to clear out soon-to-be-outlawed stock. “Get them while you can,” reads the section displaying disposable vapes. Another outlet, Shosha, has a section labelled “pre-ban” disposables and has warned customers “don’t be left stranded without a vape”. And Vapo has sent out emails to customers in recent weeks offering “buy one get one free” on all disposables, half-price products and, on one occasion, free disposable vapes with purchases over a certain amount.

Promotions from two recent Vapo emails to customers

Letitia Harding, chief executive of the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation, told The Spinoff such promotions were a huge concern. She said that some outlets were selling products for as low as $2. 

“The quick fire sale means it is even easier for young Kiwis to get their hands on the harmful habit,” Harding said. “At these prices, it’s no wonder we have a youth vaping epidemic. Vapes are now at pocket money prices. Most disposables retail for around $10 each, which is cheap enough, but this is just appalling. It’s just all about profit.”

A disposable vape with a 50mg/ml nicotine content amounts to the equivalent of a pack and a half of cigarettes, which would cost closer to $60.

But vape outlets have defended the promotions, saying it was a good thing that people could stock up cheaply as vapes were helping to reduce cigarette use. “Smoking cessation is the exact reason customers need to stock up,” said Ben Pryor, director Vapo.  “Our customers rely on these products to remain smokefree.”

It’s not just vape outlets expressing concern about the capped nicotine levels, with the chairman of anti-smoking group Ash also saying it might push people back towards cigarettes. 

“They have got that completely wrong,” Robert Beaglehole told the Herald. “For cigarette smokers who are transferring off the most harmful product, they need the substitute to provide the nicotine that they were getting from the cigarettes. Often that will require a much higher dose than the 20.”

Vapo’s Pryor described the regulations as a “huge win for Big Tobacco”, saying the decision to significantly cut nicotine levels will prompt people to return to smoking. According to the Ministry of Health, the majority of daily vapers aged 15 or older were either ex-smokers or current smokers. 

Across 2021-2022, the ministry said 56% of daily vapers were ex-smokers and 22% were both smokers and vapers. Young people aged 18 to 24 had the highest rate of daily vaping over this period, 22.9%, up from 5% in 2019-2020.

Pryor also disagreed with the time given to retailers to remove the banned products. “Our understanding is these new regulatory changes were supposed to remove ‘cheap disposable’ vaping products from the market. The tight timeframes for compliance have resulted in the exact opposite occurring,” he said. 

“Past regulatory changes have given the industry six to 12 months to sell through non-compliant products. This unprecedented three-month timeframe in the regulations has resulted in fire sales, and companies being put out of business.”

(Image: Getty, additional design by Tina Tiller)

Jonathan Devery, chair of the Vaping Industry Association of New Zealand, also warned that products may not be able to be sold off ahead of December 21. “Accepted regulatory practice would normally be to impose a timeline on distributors followed by a subsequent timeline on retailers to allow products to be sold through in an organised manner. This is what has occurred previously with regulatory updates for the vaping industry,” he said. 

Without these types of “sales tactics designed to move large volumes of product quickly”, the vaping industry would be faced with “millions of products heading straight to landfill”, Devery claimed. 

According to the Ministry of Health, the regulations were designed with a lead-in process for outlets. It was ultimately longer than the proposed three months – but this was due to a delay by the former government in progressing the regulation changes. The timeline was announced in order to allow retailers to comply, a spokesperson said.

 “At the time of the initial announcement in early June, regulations were anticipated to be announced in July and come into effect over a period of time, with the requirement that single-use vaping products meet new safety requirements coming into effect three months after the announcement,” a ministry spokesperson said.

“As the announcement was made in August, with the regulations coming into effect from 21 September, the timeline was pushed back accordingly.”

The Ministry of Health told The Spinoff that the policy announcement back in June gave the vaping industry “an opportunity to start thinking broadly about how they would adjust their business”. The spokesperson said this included determining how best to “sell through” remaining products. 

The new rules were not actually a “ban” on single-use vapes, they said, but would ensure that only disposable products that met the new requirements could be sold, potentially meaning new products would be brought into the market.

The Spinoff asked associate health minister Casey Costello for comment, but received no response. However, she indicated to the Herald that the new government was not totally satisfied with the incoming vaping regulations, describing them as “tweaking around the edges”.

‘An ocean of waste’

Stock that isn’t sold off by December 21 will still need to go somewhere. One possible option is shipping outlawed products overseas where they can still be sold. Vapo has “existing sales channels into Australia” under the country’s prescription-only model and some leftover products will be sent there, said Devery. 

But that won’t be possible for all manufacturers. Lazootin from The Vape Shop said he was facing a “significant hurdle” in that many stocked products were produced to meet “very specific” regulatory standards introduced in 2021. “This unique compliance makes them unsuitable for sale in other international markets,” he said.

Along with unsold devices potentially being dumped, his outlet was looking to dispose of around 1.7 million pieces of packaging and 759 vape liquid flavours that will soon be illegal because of “non-compliant” labelling. The new rules ban so-called enticing flavour names like “cotton candy”, meaning manufacturers must use generic descriptions only on packaging.

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of bottles of e-liquid – an ocean of waste,” Lazootin told The Spinoff. 

That ocean of waste would, of course, still have existed. While the immediate amount of waste generated by next week’s ban may be high, most of these products would eventually have made their way into the rubbish system anyway given they are single-use products. And if the ban wasn’t implemented, the longer-term implications of disposable vape waste would have been more severe. 

Writing for The Spinoff last year, Alex Casey described the impact of vape waste in New Zealand. It poses a particular problem, Casey wrote, because it falls somewhere between e-waste and hazardous waste. The country’s national rubbish monitoring programme, Litter Intelligence, said at the time that vape components had cropped up in 454 of their 1,200 beach litter surveys. 

“When we first started, vapes barely featured,” said Ben Knight, the manager of Litter Intelligence. “It’s amazing how quickly our behaviour has changed around consumption of nicotine.”

(Image: Archi Banal)

In the United Kingdom, it’s been estimated that two disposable vapes are thrown away every second. Here in New Zealand, non-disposable products will still end up in landfills, as reusable vapes and those that comply with the new rules will continue to be sold. 

The Spinoff asked environment minister Penny Simmonds whether she had any concerns about vape waste as a result of the ban, but did not receive a response. However, one environmental advocate, Sue Coutts from the Zero Waste Network, told The Spinoff that ultimately it was a good thing that New Zealand was taking steps to outlaw disposable vapes now.

“We can’t afford to keep running with business models that create problems and don’t have any sort of plan for how to solve them,” she said. “Single-use disposable packaging is problematic whatever form it’s in… The medium- to long-term benefit of stopping them now will far outweigh the short-term cost of having to dump a few that are still left on the shelf.”

By New Zealand moving to ban these products now, Coutts said we would also avoid becoming a “dumping ground” for unsold vapes from other countries. 

Retailers should have been better prepared for dealing with unsold stock, she added. “I think given that the people who make and sell them have known that these regulations were coming into force for a while, they could have come up with a bit of a plan for dealing with large volumes of plastic and lithium batteries that’s going to be a result of them having stockpiles sitting on the shelf,” Coutts said.

Auckland Council’s general manager of waste solutions, Parul Sood, told The Spinoff that it would be a “concern” if vapes weren’t disposed of properly after the ban kicks in.

“Most vape devices contain li-on batteries which, when put into council’s rubbish or recycling collections, can cause fires on collection trucks, at the transfer station and at the landfill,” he said. “We hope the vape companies will recycle them safely and correctly. Some vape companies already recycle used vapes through VapeCycle.”

VapeCycle is a vape recycle service affiliated with Vapo and launched in 2019. Similar to how Nespresso customers can send in their coffee pods to be recycled, vape users can have their pods, devices and e-liquid bottles recycled. As of November this year, the brand says it has collected 146,461 units, amounting to 2,346kg of waste. There are some catches, such as a postal limit of four vapes per parcel due to safety issues with batteries.

VapeCycle did not respond to requests for comment on whether it’s anticipating an influx of waste after next Thursday, though Vapo confirmed to The Spinoff that “any product” that can’t be sold after December 21 will be recycled.

However, Devery from the Vaping Industry Association said that not all manufacturers or retailers may be able to recycle their products. “Unfortunately for some, the only option may well be landfill,” he said.

The new government has signalled it plans to do more to reduce vaping rates in New Zealand, which will ultimately see less waste. 

In May, well before he was elected, Christopher Luxon suggested that New Zealand could follow Australia’s approach and ban recreational vaping entirely. “I think we’ve got our settings all wrong and it’s right for us to actually take a step back and actually say is there more we could be doing and I think looking at a ban is a good thing,” he said. 

But it’s not an urgent priority for the new government. Since taking office, the coalition has pledged to quickly wind back proposed smokefree rules to help fund its tax package. By contrast, there is no mention of vaping in its 100-day plan.

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