By Associate Professor Marewa Glover
New trends catch on from time to time, like playing Pokèmon GO. People walking around with their concentration channelled into their phones has led to a rise in calls to ban texting while walking. Vaping on electronic cigarettes is another new behaviour that’s split public health in two. A generation of New Zealanders has grown up not knowing what it’s like to work in an office full of tobacco smoke, or watch a movie through a smoky haze. We’re used to our almost smokefree country, with only a small minority of people – around 15 per cent – still sneaking around the corner for a puff.
To the growing proportion of never-smokers, the attraction to this new cloud blowing craze is unfathomable. Many health workers and academics mistakenly thought this was a new kind of smoking cooked up by tobacco companies. Shocked, they quickly called to have the devices banned. But vapers, most of whom were smokers before they switched to vaping, are no longer inhaling smoke with all the killer toxins, tar and carbon monoxide.
Electronic cigarettes, or vaporisers, contain a battery, a heating element and a tank or cartridge containing a liquid made from propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine and usually some flavour, water and maybe some nicotine. The element heats the liquid creating the steam-like vapour that can be inhaled. There are many different types of vaporisers, thousands of flavours and all sorts of people now vape – some for the nicotine hit, some for the sheer enjoyment and satisfaction they get from creating clouds, experimenting with flavours or collecting bespoke devices.
Many vapers are ex-smokers
When you see someone vaping, in most cases, you are seeing someone who has finally got off the quit merry-go-round. They tried the nicotine patches, the gum, the lozenges, the Champix, cold turkey and some even resorted to hypnosis. They rang Quitline, they talked to their doctor and every time they came into contact with the health system every nurse or midwife or specialist asked them if they smoked, advised them to quit and referred them for help.
When you see someone vaping, you’re looking at someone who had to research online, find a supplier and buy, not just one, but a few different vaporisers and e-liquids, before they hit upon what for them has been a magic bullet. As long as they can still get their favorite e-liquid flavour, what they call their ADV (all-day-vape), they can’t see themselves ever smoking tobacco again.
This is a person who has overcome a lot of scorn for even experimenting with an e-cigarette. They’re the tough ones who can keep on vaping, despite the dirty looks and despite the scare-mongering lies about e-cigarettes being as harmful as smoking. The Royal College of Physicians has deemed vaping, even with nicotine, to be at least 95 per cent safer than smoking tobacco, and has recommended every smoker in the United Kingdom switch to vaping.
Not only are vapers resourceful, persistent and committed to improving their health, they have to pay for this technology themselves. Luckily, vaping quickly pays back the initial outlay for the hardware and then returns savings of $80 to $100 a week, depending on how many cigarettes they used to smoke. Taxpayers should be applauding vapers, or at least giving them an encouraging thumbs-up.
Vaping could help NZ reach its smoke-free target
We have our fair share of people who think their dislike of something is grounds enough to ban new technologies and the new behaviours that come with them. But thankfully this is New Zealand, and mostly we are pragmatic. We accept our quirky subcultures and draw the line when people go too far with wanting to ban things that are not harming anyone.
The government has paid an awful lot, and still does, to reduce smoking rates. Five percent or below by 2025 is the aspirational smokefree target. Before vaping, that’s all it could be – an aspiration. If the government would lift the ban on the importation for sale of nicotine for vaping, Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 could become a reality.
It will be more difficult for some groups than others – Māori, lower socio-economic groups and people with mental health conditions all strongly interact with smoking. For these groups to also cross the smoking finish line, the Associate Minister of Health, Sam Lotu-Iiga, will need to resist the demands of prohibitionists.
If the government continues to restrict sales to pharmacies and ‘vape shops’ and bans vaping wherever smoking is banned, our smokefree target will remain out of reach. But if it supports smokers to switch, stop-smoking services will become redundant, possibly even before 2025. Just don’t expect a tax cut. Every cent will be needed to fight the new largest killer – obesity.
Marewa Glover is an associate professor of public health with Massey University’s School of Public Health.