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Image: Getty, additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty, additional design by Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 28, 2022

How many ex-smokers are now vapers? Here’s what the data shows

Image: Getty, additional design by Tina Tiller
Image: Getty, additional design by Tina Tiller

Cratering smoking numbers are a huge success story for New Zealand health. But behind the drop in smoking lies a big jump in vape addiction.

New Zealand has recorded its lowest smoking rate ever, according to the latest New Zealand Health Survey. Only ​​8% of adults smoke cigarettes on a daily basis, down from 9.4% a year ago.

But how much of that is a real reduction in smoking, and how much is a shift away from conventional cigarettes to e-cigarettes or vaping? And are some people who wouldn’t smoke cigarettes at all taking up vaping?

Ten years ago, just over 16% of all adults in New Zealand smoked cigarettes on a daily basis. Today, that number has halved – but the difference has been almost entirely made up by vaping.

This graph assumes that these two groups of people don’t overlap. In other words, it assumes that people who smoke cigarettes on a daily basis don’t also vape on a daily basis.

This is probably not quite true. International research suggests that just over 2% of smokers who use vaping to try to quit smoking end up becoming “dual users” of both conventional cigarettes and vapes. It’s not clear whether this is the only path to becoming a dual user. It’s possible that some people start off vaping before adding in cigarettes. There may also be differences in how many people are dual users between age groups or other demographics.

However, even if we assume that a percentage of people use both, the decrease in smoking rates is clearly much less significant than the headlines might suggest.

For some groups of people, it seems that daily vaping has not just replaced daily smoking, it has actually enticed people to begin smoking who otherwise wouldn’t.

In particular, there has been a sharp increase in the prevalence of under 25s and Pacific women vaping.

Ten years ago, 19% of 15 to 24 year olds smoked cigarettes on a daily basis. This has dropped significantly, and today only 6% of this age cohort smoke cigarettes every day. However, almost 19% now vape on a daily basis. Without allowing for dual users, this brings the total users to just under 25%, a net increase on where we were a decade ago.

The same is true for Pacific people, especially Pacific women. For these women, the prevalence of daily cigarette smokers has crept down from 21% to just over 19% over the course of a decade. However, vaping has shot up significantly, with over 16% of Pacific women now vaping on a daily basis.

These increases can’t just be attributed to people switching from conventional cigarettes to vaping – they represent people who have never smoked before taking up vaping.

This is particularly concerning, because while replacing conventional cigarettes with vaping is likely to be beneficial for your health and wallet, vaping is still significantly worse than not smoking at all.

Both products contain nicotine and are addictive, but vaping likely exposes you to fewer harmful chemicals compared to conventional cigarettes. It is therefore less likely to cause cancer. Vaping is also much cheaper than cigarettes. However, there is evidence that vaping is bad for your heart and lungs, and the impact of many chemicals in vapes on the human body are not yet fully understood.

While the Ministry of Health is keen to point to the falling smoking rate as a success story, they do seem to be aware of the risk that vaping poses. Their website on vaping warns, “The healthiest option is not to vape or smoke. Don’t vape if you don’t smoke. Only vape to quit smoking.”

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