As a country we have shown a long term commitment to being smokefree by 2025 and over the past few decades we have worked hard to meet this goal.
I do not need to reiterate the unquestionable harm smoking tobacco has done, and continues to do in our community. We have lost far too many New Zealanders over the years and the desire to stop this harm drives us towards Smoke Free 2025.
And we have had many great successes. Our smoking rates are falling and more importantly, the number of people starting to smoke tobacco is declining. But 4500 to 5000 New Zealanders are dying annually as a result of smoking tobacco.
Over the past 20 years we have reduced our smoking population to the point where today we are left with the most engrained, heavy smokers.
They are the sector of the smoking population whose addiction still wins out against the high price and health problems of cigarettes. They smoke at such a high rate that methods of cessation like chewing gum and patches cannot equal their nicotine intake. In more simple terms, they remain unable to quit despite the various policies and options we have put in place.
That is why we must be willing to look at alternatives to smoking tobacco that can work as a bridging tool to eventually quitting nicotine. One option is vaping and electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes).
I have recently submitted a private member’s bill called the Smoke-free Environments (Regulation of Electronic Cigarettes) Amendment Bill. It is based on the work that I did as the Associate Minister of Health and aims to regulate the sale of vaping products to 18 years and older, allow for the legal sale of nicotine vaping liquids and allow vaping to be banned from designated Smokefree areas.
The first area of change – restricting sale to those aged 18 and over – is relatively straight forward. The industry is, on the most part, self-regulating the sale of vaping products to those aged 18 and over, and they should be commended for this proactive effort. This bill merely formalises that age.
The second area of change – allowing nicotine vaping products – is the main driving force behind the bill. While it is not legal to sell vaping products that contain nicotine, an individual can legally import them from abroad as long as it is for personal use. I believe that we should allow New Zealand firms to sell nicotine-based vaping products so as to better monitor both the quality of the product and to make it easier for purchase.
The final area of change – banning vaping in Smokefree Areas – is a more controversial part of the bill. Originally, Smokefree Areas were designed to provide spaces that shielded bystanders from second-hand smoke and the consequences that come from in. Research shows there is no negative consequences of second-hand vaper on bystanders.
So why class them the same?
First, we must still treat vaping and e-cigarettes like we treat tobacco if we are to signal to people that this practice remains discouraged by society. This must be used as a tool to wean people off nicotine rather than a long term replacement habit.
Secondly, while not harmful to bystanders, vaping is still invasive and we should make sure our smokefree areas can be seen as fresh air spaces.
So why should nicotine vaping products be easier to purchase?
Vaping provides a bridging tool to help engrained smokers quit tobacco by offering an healthier alternative and another method towards reaching Smokefree 2025.
Vaping allows for the addiction to nicotine and the physical habit of smoking to be separated from tobacco and the associated harms. Research shows that vaping is 95% healthier than smoking tobacco as burning tobacco causes most of the harm from smoking. And the design of e-cigarettes and vaping devices allow smokers to fulfil the physical habit of smoking. Moreover, the design of these devices allows for the gradual reduction in the amount of nicotine used to wean smokers off their addiction.
To reach our Smokefree 2025 goal in seven years requires a willingness to try new methods that wean our remaining smokers off tobacco. Vaping is increasingly seen as such an alternative and even though there are still health consequences from vaping, and as such we don’t want to encourage non-smokers to start vaping, it is a much healthier alternative for those engrained smokers. If smokers can make a reduction in harm of 95% by switching to vaping then that is a huge step towards our goal. Vaping does not promise to be a silver bullet, but more vaping and less smoking will improve health outcomes over time.
So while I wait to see if my bill is drawn for debate in Parliament, I am encouraging the government to adopt this bill or a similar bill so we can have the conversation around vaping and hopefully offer a real alternative to our most engrained smokers, and move ever closer to meeting our Smokefree 2025 ambition. Seven years is not a long time and we must act soon to help the heaviest smokers quit.
Nicky Wagner is a National MP and Spokesperson for Greater Christchurch Regeneration.
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