Today the Associate Minister of Health, Jenny Salesa, delivered a much-anticipated response from the government to the introduction of vaping products to New Zealand. Vapes have been a contentious subject in the health sector, sparking debate between those who advocate caution and those who have seen in vaping and related products a much-needed circuit breaker for those who have struggled to quit smoking by other means.
Hāpai Te Hauora has consistently advocated for a pragmatic approach to harm reduction in tobacco control, and this has included support for vaping as a smoking cessation tool.
Hāpai was encouraged to see the minister taking a strong stance on vape safety, as her announcement included regulations to ensure manufacturers have to report faults in vape products to the Ministry of Health, ensuring labelling and marketing of products are less appealing for young people and are as safe as they can be.
But the rest of the announcement was a disappointment, as it increases restrictions on vape flavours, the availability of vape products - essentially treating them like tobacco - all of which adds up to less availability for those in need. This has been framed as a happy medium between protecting children and adolescents from taking up vapes and allowing people who wish to quit smoking access to effective smoking cessation tools. It also mirrors actions taken by health authorities in North America.
"Our first priority is that we want tobacco out of our communities and away from our tamariki," says Mihi Blair, General Manager for Tobacco Control at Hāpai. "We have seen that vaping can play a key role for some people in achieving the elimination of tobacco from their whānau and their homes and we absolutely support those who have found vaping a successful strategy for them with the aim to quit vaping as well.
Of course we don’t want our children suddenly taking up vaping either and we acknowledge the minister’s move to add in prevention measures which aims to prevent another future addiction. However, the addiction is here and now and there are over 500,000 people who smoke tobacco and we were hoping for more balanced regulations to support them as well to quit.
'We were hoping for braver action from the government on this. While this is a first step and we hope there will be room to influence the direction of this policy, I’m concerned that these regulations will limit smokers’ access to vapes and fruity flavours which research and communities tell us are an appealing draw card towards vapes when transitioning from cigarettes".
The government passed legislation earlier this year for the legalisation of vaping. However, there appears to be minimal effort made at a government level to collaborate with the tobacco control sector and use informed, evidence-based action. Their minimal effort is reflected in the mixed, contrasting and potentially damaging statements made by political leaders on the harms and concerns on vaping. In a live TV3 interview this month regarding smokefree cars, Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, stated "Where do we categorise vaping? Is it actually a legitimate way to make people quit smoking?"
Blair responds, "Yes, it is a legitimate way to help people to quit. As for the question of safety, we do know that vapes are less harmful than smoking- 95% less harmful in fact. Now that we have regulations, let’s not use these as a barrier to limit whānau ability to use vaping as a tool to quit cigarettes. We need regulations which are proportionate to the risk and now that vaping is legalised, government need to respond to community and sector calls for vape funding in stop smoking services".
"This is a classic case of the great being the enemy of the good. It would be great if nobody ever smoked anything again, but this is the real world we live in, where people still smoke and still struggle to quit. And in this real world vaping is effectively a life-saver for people who haven’t been able to quit by other means. We hoped that the government would see that this is the principled and safer option, and we have been disappointed with the tone of this announcement which has basically said - we’re worried about a hypothetical situation, so we’re going to limit the availability of vapes to people who need them and who have found them effective."