High School student Matt* has never smoked a cigarette in his life, but he’s been vaping since he was just 14-years-old. 

The now 17-year-old, who didn't want to use his real name for this story because he hides his vaping addiction from his family, says he's not sure why he started.

But he remembers pinching his first vape from a draw in his older brother's room, and from then on, he says it was easy to get them off his friends whenever he wanted.

“My friends and I started by getting really into vape tricks,” he laughs. 

“But now I vape alone more than with other people. It kind of feels like you are pressing pause on the day…I use it as a way to escape the stress of whatever is going on.”

Matt is one of thousands of under 18-year-olds in New Zealand who regularly vape, despite this being against the law.

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation and Secondary Principals’ Association Survey found 27 percent of young people had vaped in the last seven days and more and more are getting into it. 

The ASH Year 10 Snapshot - which measures smoking and vaping behaviour - showed the number of school students who are vaping has jumped from 12% in 2019 to 20% in 2022. 

In an attempt to try and stop more young people getting addicted to nicotine vapes, health experts and schools are calling on the Government to follow Australia’s lead by making them prescription only or sold only at pharmacies.

But this approach has led to a booming black market across the ditch because of one niggly loophole.

Australia’s vape black market

Since 2021, vapes have been classed as a ‘prescription-only drug’ in Australia. This means nicotine vapes can only be legally obtained by adults who have a doctor’s prescription to use vaping to quit cigarette smoking. 

But two years after the law passed, people living in Australia say vapes are just as easy to get hold of as before, regardless of whether you have a prescription.

Kate Price, 25, lives in Sydney, Australia, and says she didn’t even realise the law had changed. 

“You can still get vapes from tobacco stores and corner stores and sometimes it seems easier than buying cigarettes because the vapes aren't as hidden as cigarettes are. They are still all on display with all the different flavours,” she says. 

“I feel like the illegalisation of them didn’t change anything.”

Archibald McGill, a photographer living in Melbourne, says he tried vaping for a couple of days to quit smoking but found that it gave him a headache and hurt his lungs.

But when we went to buy the vape, he says, there was no mention at all of needing a prescription.

“In the CBD you can’t walk a block without going past a shop that sells vapes. So I didn’t even know you were meant to have a prescription. I just walked into the store and bought one, no questions asked.”

Lizzie Carmine, 25, is a New Zealander who recently moved to Melbourne.

She doesn’t vape, but says nearly everyone she knows does - “and no one has a prescription”.

“The stores sell them illegally, so you can still buy them but they have no ingredients list and aren’t promoted as containing nicotine. So you actually have no idea how much nicotine you are getting.”

The glaring loophole in Australia’s vape crackdown

“The issue is non-nicotine vapes are still legal, so retailers and manufacturers peel-off labels and repackage nicotine vapes so that they don't say they contain nicotine,” Cancer Council New South Wales researcher Emily Jenkinson says. 

“So when an enforcement officer searches a store, they don't know which ones contain nicotine, and which ones are legal. They have to send them away for testing, which of course takes a lot of time and money and slows everything down.”

An ABC investigation into black market vapes found vapes that did not say they contained nicotine, actually contained the highest levels of nicotine on the market - and if the levels were any higher, it would cause physical discomfort to the user.

Cancer Council New South Wales researcher Emily Jenkinson says not restricting non-nicotine vapes has contributed to a vape black market. Photo: Supplied.

Jenkinson says the way to solve Australia’s black market is to make non-nicotine vapes prescription and pharmacy access only too. 

“Then if an enforcement officer was to go into a shop that isn’t a pharmacy, any vaping product they see can be taken and any vaping products not destined for a pharmacy can be seized at the border, without the need for testing.”

Taiwan recently did this and banned all E-cigarettes including the manufacture, import, sale, supply, exhibition, advertisement, and use of e-cigarettes that contain nicotine and are non-nicotine.

They also increased penalties for violations. According to Taiwan News manufacturing or importing e-cigarettes is punishable by a fine of up to $2.65 million and people can be fined $529 on the spot if they are caught vaping.

Jenkinson says if New Zealand learnt from Australia’s mistake, the strict legislation “would work wonders” for reducing youth vaping. 

However, Dr Jude Ball from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago in Wellington says it’s “very unlikely New Zealand would go down the pharmacy-only route” because the Ministry of Health wants to support smokers to switch and avoid any barriers to this.

Dr Jude Ball from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago in Wellington says it’s unlikely New Zealand will adopt the same model as Australia because the priority is to avoid creating barriers for smokers to switch to vaping. Photo: supplied.

“It's really important that we have the right regulations that discourage non-smokers, especially children from taking out vaping while also ensuring that E-cigarettes are available and satisfying for smokers that want to switch,” she says.

“We've got lots of children vaping, even primary school principals saying it's an issue in primary schools. We clearly haven't got that balance right. So we need to tighten up regulations.”

Manager of regulated products at Te Pou Hauora Tūmatanui, Public Health Agency, Matt Burgess, told Re: News: “There are currently no plans to restrict vapes to prescription-only in New Zealand, as this would create a significant barrier to existing smokers using vaping products to help them quit smoking.” 

Vaping regulations proposed for New Zealand

The Government opened a public consultation in January to update vaping regulations to combat youth vaping. 

Some of the Government’s proposals included reducing the maximum concentration of nicotine salts allowed in single-use products, restricting flavour names of vaping products to minimise their appeal to youth and considering the proximity of proposed vape stores to places like schools and sports grounds when assessing Specialist Vape Retailer applications.

Ball says these regulations are a “good start but don’t go nearly far enough” and wants to see a minimum price for vapes be enforced that is more than $20. 

“We need to address the fact that there are very cheap vapes available, so there’s no cost barrier for young people - unlike with cigarettes.

“So if only the more expensive vaping products are available, that's probably not going to be a barrier for smokers. But it probably will be a barrier for children and young people,” she says.

Ball also wants to see disposable vapes banned completely as these are typically the most accessible and popular for young people. 

Scotland is currently looking into a ban on disposable vapes after Glasgow City Council voted in favour of the move to reduce excessive e-waste.

Ball also wants to see a clamp down on advertising and gamified marketing that deliberately targets children and young people. 

For example, Alt’s promotion which rewards customers with a free pod pack for every 10 pod packs they purchase.

On top of this, Ball says changing the name of flavours and packaging so they’re less attractive to young people is a good idea. But restricting flavours is “tricky” because they are finding people who switch from cigarettes to vapes like the sweeter, fruity flavours.

“So we wouldn't want to make vaping less attractive to people wanting to switch from smoking.”

What if these regulations create a black market in NZ?

“The tobacco industry has a history of exaggerating black market arguments to try and avoid regulation,” Associate Professor and leader of the drug research team at SHORE & Whariki Research Centre at Massey University, Chris Wilkins says.

“But the black market is not a reason not to do anything.”

“I always argue, if your regulation is too light, then you're not really achieving anything by avoiding a black market, because your legal market is already generating all the adverse effects anyway. What's the point of avoiding the black market when you already have a worst-case scenario?”

Wilkins says there is “low-hanging fruit” in terms of regulating the legal vape market in New Zealand before we get anywhere close to triggering a black market like Australia. The key, he says, is investing in the enforcement of the regulation.

“There’s no point bringing in all this regulation if you can’t enforce it, like we are seeing with Australia. 

“If retailers can just get away with things, then it doesn't matter how many laws and regulations you've got. They aren’t going to care.”

All vaping products must be notified to the Ministry of Health before they can be legally sold in New Zealand.  

Burgess told Re: News “The Authority continues to investigate non-compliance amongst industry and respond to complaints of vaping products being sold in New Zealand that have not been notified to the Authority.  

“If the Authority confirms through its investigations that a product has not been notified, it educates the seller on their legal obligations under the Act and requests that they cease selling the product immediately. Any further non-compliance may result in enforcement action being taken,” he says. 

To get in touch with the author of this article, email zoe@renews.co.nz

More stories:

Nangs to the door: the curious rise of NZ’s ‘whipped cream’ industry

Why the hell am I so aggressively being advertised whipped cream paraphernalia?

Why I kept my ex’s clothes

Breakups suck but sometimes you get a new jumper out of it.

Half of all cosmetics have ‘forever chemicals’. NZ wants to ban them

Here’s how it might impact your long-wear makeup.