Have young people been the pawn to deliver smoke free 2025?


One could say it’s been a short time coming … that is the legislation to protect young people from the addictive properties of vaping. A mere three years, and yet in that time I’ve had ongoing discussions with principals and teachers about the number of young people who would never have smoked and now vape.  In fact, I would be bold enough to say that while the legislation was slowly drafted to achieve cessation goals with vulnerable adults, government looked on as vaping use by young people increased significantly.

Now all this might change with the latest legislation, which will see popular flavours targeted at young people no longer available at dairies and service stations nationwide.

But what is really concerning is that law or no law we have a big problem with the rising number of young people vaping, and the law change certainly doesn’t address the trend that has been established when the door was left ajar and young people took up vaping as the new accessory.

Back in 2018, a court decision found the SmokeFree Environments Act did not prohibit the sale of oral tobacco products, unless those products involved chewing. Overnight, vaping became legal and without a regulatory framework.  This left the door wide open, and very soon vaping clawed its way into the psyche of our young people as a very trendy accessory, and not just those who had been smoking cigarettes.

The government insisted ‘it was complicated’ as it delicately tried to balance the encouragement and uptake of vaping as a smoking cessation tool because it offers less harm than cigarettes, while also discouraging others to take vaping up.

By mid-2019, at Life Education we were fielding requests from schools for information and health guidance as they saw vaping increasing amongst vulnerable adolescents.  While in September 2019 Stuff reported Auckland secondary school principals warn that without firm action New Zealand will have a new generation of people addicted to nicotine.

According to Auckland Secondary Principals' Association president Richard Dykes, teenage vaping had become a serious problem in some of the city's schools. 

"In some communities it is at epidemic proportions. This thing is just exploding in some schools. It seems to be more of an issue in higher-income-community schools.”

A University of Otago study published in the NZ Medical Journal in Nov 2019 found 90% of New Zealand vendor websites marketing to New Zealand consumers did not require age-verification prior to purchases. The study noted that the products were priced at rates many children and teenagers could likely afford - the cheapest e-cigarette cost $9.95 and a 10ml e-liquid refill sold for as little as $3.50. Smoking was taxed out of young people’s reach. Vaping was a bargain.

Finally, in 2020 the Act arrives. The Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Vaping) Amendment Act 2020 (the Amendment Act) commenced on 11 November 2020, and looks to strike the balance between ensuring vaping products are available for smokers who want to switch to a less harmful alternative and ensuring these products aren’t marketed or sold to young people.

The provisions of the Act are being phased in over a 15-month period. This means some provisions came into force straight away, the rest stretched to 2022.  But is it too late and what will become of those young people who are now addicted to vaping?

In early 2021, responding to requests Life Education provided a vaping workshop to teachers with more than 30 Christchurch schools attending. Schools continued to reach out as they struggle to find support.

Meanwhile principals in Christchurch described a vaping problem of “almost epidemic proportions” had arrived in Christchurch after first hitting Auckland schools two years ago. Phil Holstein, Burnside High School principal and president of Canterbury West Coast Secondary Principals' Association came out saying vaping was now a bigger problem than smoking.

With earlier mixed messaging from the government along the lines of ‘don't smoke, but if you are smoking, vaping is better than tobacco’. What a nuanced message to a teenage brain that likes risk-taking behaviour. Most recently Otago University magazine The Critic conducted a survey of students across a range of questions. Of the 439 responded 42.5% reported they vaped, more than double who said they smoked, or smoked only while drinking. Perhaps not the most scientific survey but an interesting indicator that vaping is well entrenched now amongst youth.

John O’Connell – Chief Executive Life Education Trust