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The BulletinMarch 21, 2024

Disposable vapes go up in smoke

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

As the government announces a ban on all disposables, new documents reveal ministers ignored official advice on the potential effects of the smokefree laws, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Total ban on disposable vapes announced

Associate health minister Casey Costello has announced all disposable vapes will be banned as part of the government’s crackdown on youth vaping. “Too many teenagers continue to use disposable vapes – they’re cheap and remain too easy to get, despite changes under the previous government,” she said. Also announced yesterday were big increases to fines for selling vapes to under-18s, further restrictions on the retailers who can sell vapes, and a more comprehensive enforcement system. The new rules are on top of the previously announced vaping regulations that come into effect today. Those include a ban on vaping products that depict cartoons or toys on the packaging and limiting flavour names to generic descriptions. The announcement comes as a study from University College London finds people who vape have similar changes to their DNA as smokers do, specifically changes in their cheek cells linked to smokers developing lung cancer later in life.

Black market threat remains

The government’s focus on eradicating youth vaping will be backed by the threat of massive fines. Retailers found selling vapes to under-18s could face a 10-fold increase in fines, from $10,000 to $100,000, while the penalty for other infringements will go up from $500 to $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for businesses. This second set of (much lower) penalties are apparently aimed at combatting the black market, but will they be enough? The Australian experience suggests not. Australia has one of the strictest anti-vaping regimes in the world, and the black market there is skyrocketing. Last week academics James Martin and David Bright wrote that “over the past six months… there have been more than 40 firebombings of stores selling illicit tobacco and vapes across Victoria. In October, police said the killing of Melbourne man in a drive-by shooting was also linked to the underworld war over illegal tobacco products.” With all that being said, the fact that non-disposable vapes will still be legal should significantly limit the size of the black market here.

Luxon and Reti ignored official advice on risk of tobacco-related crime – report

The potential New Zealand tobacco black market is in the news this morning thanks to an agenda-setting report by RNZ’s Kate Newton showing the prime minister and health minister Shane Reti repeatedly claimed the now-scrapped smokefree laws would cause more crime, contradicting official advice. During the review of the laws, the health ministry informed Reti that the illicit tobacco trade “has actually been decreasing” and that research found the new laws “may lead to an increase or a decrease in the illicit tobacco trade”. Despite this, Reti’s office told the media the smokefree law was being scrapped based partly on concerns that the changes “would have increased the black market for tobacco, and an escalation of ram raids”. Reti was also told by his own staff that “dairies and other small businesses may be less subjected to robberies” as a result of the laws, but ministers continued to double down on the ram raid claim for weeks afterwards. Labour’s health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall, who obtained the documents under the OIA, says they suggest a pattern of political messaging overriding evidence-based decision-making. “They come up with nothing, yet they continue to feed those lines out anyway.”

New Zealand’s messy vape-waste problem

Environmental groups are among those celebrating the vape ban announcement. As The Spinoff’s Alex Casey discovered in 2022, vape waste is increasing at a stratospheric rate, both here and around the world. Alex’s piece includes some eye-popping stats: “With an estimated 4.3 million vapers in the UK, research has found that 3 million vape parts are thrown away per week, amounting to two vapes thrown away every second.” The unique composition of fully disposable vapes significantly exacerbates the problem, as they contain both e-waste – a lithium-ion battery – and heavy metals such as lead, tin and nickel which should be managed as hazardous materials. While the ban will eventually reduce waste, the immediate outcome may be a huge number of trashed unused vapes. Prior to the new ban announcement, a report suggested as many as 10 million unused vape pens could be sent to landfill as a result of tighter restrictions.

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