Otago Uni 'mystery shopper' catches out vape stores

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Specialist vape stores are taking advantage of hazy regulations to discount products, and new research has found many of them are selling products to people under 18.

University of Otago (Wellington) public health researcher Dr Jude Ball said present regulations meant people under the age of 18 were not allowed to enter specialist vaping shops, and vape products could not be sold to anyone under 18.

The regulations were intended to address the high level of youth vaping in New Zealand.

"The law requires retailers to take all reasonable means to make sure that people under 18 don’t enter specialist vape stores."

The university has published a study today which used a 20-year-old "mystery shopper" to test the compliance of 74 specialist vape stores in the Wellington region.

The study found only one store requested age identification on entry to the R18 premises.

She said in 50% of the stores, identification was requested when a purchase was made, but a third of those retailers proceeded with the sale despite the buyer not providing ID.

The study also found disposable vapes remained available for $10 or less in most stores, and reusable starter kits were also widely available for $10-$20.

Of most concern were discounted high-nicotine disposables being sold for as little as $2.50.

Most low-price disposables did not comply with the new nicotine limits and safety regulations which came into force in December 2023, Dr Ball said.

"The results are really concerning. They confirm what we’ve heard anecdotally and they highlight some real problems with the system at the moment."

She said one of those problems was that discounting was allowed on vaping products.

"The law disallows discounts on tobacco and other regulated products, but there’s an exception for e-cigarettes or for specialist vape retailers.

"So what that means is that when the regulations change and suddenly there’s a whole lot of products that are now no longer compliant, what we see is those products being dumped for very cheap prices.

"It goes against the intentions of the regulations, which aim to make cheap, high-nicotine products less available."

Dr Ball called on the government to change legislation to stop retailers discounting vape products, bring in more enforcement, and give much clearer guidance in terms of the regulations.

"What we have is an industry that is very adept at getting around regulations.

"Pushing the boundaries is not actually breaking the law, so everything needs to be defined to the nth degree.

"At the moment there is some ambiguity about what counts as a single-use product, what counts as removable batteries . . . the industry is taking advantage of those ambiguities to keep selling products that certainly don’t meet the spirit of the law."

She said it was important to make the changes because New Zealand has recorded the highest youth vaping rates in the world.

About 10% of year 10 pupils vape daily, and there were even primary school pupils vaping.

"That’s really concerning because we don’t know the long-term health impacts of vaping.

"We certainly know some of the short-term impacts, in that young people can very quickly become addicted and there are impacts on respiratory health, oral health and on financial health and relationships with family.

"Vapes are not harmless and are not designed to be used by children."