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As the number of vape retailers in Aotearoa continues to grow – there are now more vape retailers than community pharmacies in the country - a group of health researchers and advocates says regulations are failing rangatahi.

In a research letter in this week’s New Zealand Medical Journal, Professor Janet Hoek, of the University of Otago, Wellington, Bridget Rowse, of Te Whatu Ora, National Public Health Service, Northern Region, Ngā Tai Ora , and Martin Witt, of the Cancer Society, say current and imminent regulations do not go far enough to reduce young people’s exposure to vaping products.

Professor Hoek says regulations need to include more comprehensive proximity and density limits, a sinking lid measure, and approvals for opening specialist vape stores should also require community consultation.

The Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Vaping) Amendment Act 2020 differentiated between generic retailers and specialist vape retailers. The Act restricts generic retailers to selling vaping products featuring tobacco, menthol or mint flavours, while specialist vaping retailers (SVR) operating as R18 stores, can sell a full flavour range.

Regulations implementing the Vaping Act came into effect in August 2021, and by November that year the Vaping Regulatory Authority had approved 671 applications for specialist vaping stores. By the end of March this year, a further 534 applications had been approved.

While half of the applications in the first three months were for specialist stores, that number jumped to 92 per cent of all applications since then.

Professor Hoek says this change may reveal a “loophole” in the regulations.

“We believe these single store applications reflect the rising numbers of small retailers, typically dairy owners, who have subdivided their premises to include a specialist vape store.

“The evolution of these ‘stores-within-a-store’ – which are sometimes just a walk-in cupboard – means specialist vape stores are now located adjacent to schools and playgrounds. This development is highly unlikely to support the legislation’s aim of minimising harm to young people and children,” she says.

A study in June last year found that of the 645 specialist vaping retailers in New Zealand, 613 were within one kilometre of a school. Since that study, SVR numbers have nearly doubled.

“By way of context, there are currently four times the number of SVRs than there are McDonalds and KFC stores, and SVR outlets now exceed the number of community pharmacies in the country.”

While new regulations announced last month would not allow specialist vape stories to begin operation within 300 metres of a school or marae, that does not address the issue of the many stores already operating in close proximity to schools.

“Not only do the proposed restrictions not govern general vape retailers, they will not apply retrospectively to address proximity problems that have caused community concerns and they do not address rising outlet density,” Professor Hoek says.

“We need more comprehensive regulations that recognise outlet concentration will increase young people’s exposure to vaping products and facilitate vaping uptake.”

As well as introducing firmer proximity and density policies for both specialist and generic vape retailers, the community should also be involved in the approval process, a move which Professor Hoek says will help address the “current disconnection between those making decisions and those affected”.

A sinking lid policy, where licences for stores that close or transfer ownership are not renewed, would also help reduce numbers in due course, she says.

Aotearoa New Zealand has treated vaping products as though these are normal consumer products, when in fact they are anything but.  That approach has failed rangatahi, particularly rangatahi Māori.

“The new regulations will not go far enough to safeguard young people and fall short of the detailed, comprehensive protection they deserve.”

Publication details:

The rise and the rise of specialist vape stores: will proposed changes protect rangatahi?

Bridget Rowse, Martin Witt, Janet Hoek

The New Zealand Medical Journal (Friday 21 July 2023 edition)

For more information please contact:

Professor Janet Hoek
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington

Lea Jones
Communications Adviser, Media Engagement
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 279 4969

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