Editorial: the best hope for smokers is in the cloud
OPINION: The Government has become almost notorious for its setting of long-time goals but the ambition to have a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025 predates predator-free and swimmable river targets. When the smoke-free goal was adopted in 2011, it was dubbed "aspirational" rather than realistic, which seems to be even more true now, with only eight years to go.
The latest figures tell us that 17 per cent of adults smoke, compared to 20 per cent a decade ago. There are still stubborn anomalies, with 24 per cent of young adults (aged 18-24) and 38 per cent of Maori adults smoking. It was the worrying Maori trend that prompted the 2025 goal in the first place.
With cigarettes now costing around $25 a packet, there is a school of thought that says further price hikes will simply become a war on the addicted poor. This makes the Government's full legalisation of an affordable alternative very welcome.
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes or vaping, had a shadowy legal status. While the nicotine liquid that is evaporated in them was technically illegal, no retailer was prosecuted and the equipment was legal, as was vaping liquid without nicotine. The Government's law change clears up this grey area and allows vaping to play a greater role as a smoking cessation tool.
Public Health England famously found that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking cigarettes. While it is highly addictive, nicotine is not actually harmful. Vapers blow clouds of steam rather than toxic smoke. The exhaled cloud might smell faintly and not unpleasantly of fruit or coffee. But despite vaping's relative safety, the Smoke-free Environments Act will be enforced, banning vaping in workplaces and wherever smoking is currently banned.
Marewa Glover of Massey University's School of Public Health says this creates a mixed message about levels of harm and as local government councils, district health boards and universities are being lobbied to completely ban smoking on their grounds, they will also ban vaping by default. A vaping ban will also apply to Housing NZ properties. This seems to contradict the obvious health benefits it offers current smokers.
One area of controversy during the consultation process was to do with who could legally sell vaping liquid and paraphernalia. Specialist retailers hoped that the new regime would limit vaping products to their chains and pharmacies, but the Government opted to allow sales in dairies, supermarkets and service stations. While this might create a risky situation in which sellers lack expertise, it will offer vaping to smokers outside larger centres.
Nicotine vaping sales will be restricted to those over 18 and advertising restrictions will also apply, which again might seem counter-productive if the Government genuinely wants people to avoid cigarettes. These restrictions risk creating the false impression that vaping is as dangerous as smoking itself.
But overall, the law change is a positive and wise step into difficult and ever-changing terrain. Experts such as the University of Otago's Tony Blakely have praised the Government's caution and pragmatism. It is also worth noting that vaping products will not be taxed as heavily as cigarettes, giving diehard addicts even fewer reasons to persist with old-fashioned, expensive and life-threatening smoking.