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Reports of Big Tobacco's "lolly scramble'' for customers in New Zealand before new regulations on advertising of alternatives to smoking are introduced are, sadly, not surprising.
Anyone who had fondly hoped that the tobacco companies would quietly die with more dignity than many of their customers was deluded. They are keen now to be seen as knights in shining armour, rescuing the poor (literally and figuratively) addicted tobacco smokers by transitioning them to vaping or their more questionable tobacco-heated products. Their insistence that they are not aiming their campaigns at young people is hard to swallow.
National health spokesman and Dunedin-based list MP Michael Woodhouse pointed out the absurdity of their claims during a recent health select committee hearing when the ban on smoking in cars was being discussed.
He suggested the logical conclusion to the line the Big Tobacco representative was peddling about actively discouraging new users was that when every existing tobacco smoker or vaper died, the company would end. That was greeted with waffle from the tobacco representative about transitioning them to "next-generation'' products.
High school pupils who gave evidence to the committee pointed out that the look and smell of vape steam, vaping equipment and shops were all presented in a way which appealed to youth. More concerningly, they had observed a clear progression from vaping to smoking among new users. Some secondary school principals are raising alarm about this too. While vaping seems considerably less dangerous than traditional smoking, exposing the user to fewer toxic chemicals than traditional cigarettes, that does not mean it is hazard-free. If the e-cigarette includes nicotine, it is addictive. Nicotine is a toxic substance which raises your blood pressure, spikes adrenaline and can increase your likelihood of a heart attack. It is easier for the developing brain to become addicted.
Also, the long-term effects of vaping are not known. Focus has been on health concerns recently with news of hundreds of cases of lung illness and several deaths in the United States linked to vaping. (It is estimated the US has some 10million vapers with about half of them under the age of 35.) Research into those cases is incomplete, but an early theory suggests a considerable proportion of the vapers falling ill may have been inhaling cannabinoid products and that the presence of an oil derived from vitamin E in these may be an issue. Responding to these recent events, US President Donald Trump has moved to ban flavoured non-nicotine e-cigarettes in the hope it will stop children taking up vaping.
Associate Health Minister Jenny Salesa has previously acknowledged there were concerns vaping could be a gateway to smoking for young people but said there was no clear evidence for this.
The Ministry of Health has launched a vaping facts website for smokers wanting to quit and an awareness campaign aimed at Maori women smokers. It says vaping may help people to quit smoking, but it is not for children, young people or non-smokers. While that may be the official view, is the reality of its uptake different? The ministry says it will continue to monitor the evidence on vaping and who is taking it up.
Banning of many flavours is expected in the proposed amendment to the Smokefree Environment Act to regulate vaping and smokeless tobacco products, expected to go before Parliament this month, but what else it might contain is unclear.
There have been suggestions vaping products be made prescription-only to smokers to reduce the uptake by non-smokers. However, since many vapers already have an established habit, it is hard to see how that could work. Insisting on plain packaging for the liquids and the paraphernalia is another possibility, although the horse may have bolted on that too. Whatever turns up in the proposed legislation should be considered thoughtfully and thoroughly. Any attempt by Big Tobacco to dominate the discussion should be resisted.