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Waitaki Girls’ High School principal Liz Koni, who has recently returned from the Secondary Principals’ Association New Zealand annual conference, said vaping and the ease of access was a "very real concern" to educators across the country "and sadly, not only in the secondary sector".
The use of e-cigarettes is being touted as the healthier alternative to smoking, but with Waitaki children as young as 11 experimenting, there were concerns about the long-term harm it may cause.
While schools could actively discourage vaping and educate pupils about the negative health effects, "the real problem lies in the ease of accessibility to vaping paraphernalia in our communities, the lack of parental guidance and control, and the way that vaping is marketed as a healthy alternative to smoking", Mrs Koni said.
"As with many other current issues related to our young people . . . our schools are at the bottom of the cliff – left to pick up the pieces – with all the expectation that we are the ones responsible for fixing the issues.
"The Smokefree (Vaping) Amendment Act, commenced in November last year, claims to ensure that vaping products are not marketed or sold to our young people. But it is failing miserably in this respect.
"It is shameful that our local dairies can and are selling vapes and liquid refills beside ice creams and lollipops. And with sleek designs, bright colours and flavours like watermelon splash and banana split, of course our young people are going to see the appeal, without thinking about the harm that vaping can do."
St Kevin’s College assistant principal Jo Walshe echoed Mrs Koni’s sentiments. She said the message around vaping was "woolly".
"We are concerned that under-aged students seem to have easy access to vapes, and that they are being marketed as trendy and safe when none of us have any idea if that is in fact the case."
Both schools had adjusted their policies around smoking, to include a vaping ban.
Ms Walshe said St Kevin’s had taken an "educational approach towards it on a whole school and individual basis".
E-cigarettes work by vaporising an e-liquid – most commonly containing propylene glycol, glycerine, nicotine and flavourings – using a heating coil. While these ingredients are generally considered safe, the effect on the lungs of inhaling these chemicals, especially over a number of years, is unknown. The effect the heating process has on the chemicals, is also not clear.
It is an offence to sell vaping products to people under 18.
Waitaki District Council community development manager Helen Algar said although vaping was seen as the "lesser of two evils" for smokers trying to quit, there were studies that showed young people who vaped were actually more likely to take up smoking.
"For young people, especially the very young, from 11 years upwards, [vaping] is not only likely to cause harm, but it it also illegal," Mrs Algar said.
"Just because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, does not mean it is OK to provide it to kids."
That was happening in Waitaki, and needed to be stopped, Mrs Algar said.
Oamaru’s first vape shop – Infused – opened in 2019, and another vape shop, Shosha, is opening on Monday.
Shosha operations manager Nabhik Gupta said there were very strict policies in place around serving young people.
"We have a very strict policy of no school uniforms in our store whatsoever, and this is regardless [of whether] they have ID showing they are 18-plus. We refuse to serve any under-age customers and ask them to immediately leave the store."
Mr Gupta appreciated there was concern surrounding the issue of youth vaping, and wanted to work alongside the community, welcoming the opportunity to discuss any other potential safeguards they could employ to ensure the health and wellbeing of locals.
Infused vape shop owner Tracy Pile said the last thing she wanted to see was an "epidemic of underage vaping".
The majority of her customers were over 30 and looking for a way to give up smoking.
She had received a lot of positive feedback from those customers who had managed to do that.
Southern District Health Board medical officer of health Susan Jack said more vaping regulations – around packaging, promotion and display of vaping products – would come into effect on August 11. From November 28, vaping and smoking would be prohibited in vehicles carrying children.
Dr Jack said vaping was not recommended for non-smokers.
While Public Health South did have enforcement powers under the Ministry of Health, it preferred to "engage" with other organisations and "support individuals, retailers, and schools on their smoke-free journeys".
By Ashley Smyth