Have you ever noticed how some areas are overflowing with vape shops? Take Ōtāhuhu, a small town in South Auckland, for instance. With its plethora of vape stores, one is hardly ever too far from a nicotine fix. The situation isn't unique to Ōtāhuhu either, it's a pattern we see far too often - high deprivation areas are seemingly targeted by vape retailers. But why is this the case? Is this merely an industry strategy or something more sinister? Let's dive deeper.
A disturbing trend has emerged across the nation: the lower the income of a community, the more e-cigarette outlets it has. A recent investigation showed an alarming disparity, with nearly ten times more vape shops in our poorest communities compared to the wealthiest.
Health researcher Lucy Hardie suggests this isn't surprising. She's found similar patterns with alcohol outlets in the past. Could the vaping industry be exploiting these communities? Their likely defense would be, "This is where the smokers are. This is why we need to be there". However, the question remains: are they just targeting vulnerable populations, or are they genuinely there to help?
We conducted an analysis of specialist vape retailers across the country, cross-referencing their locations with socioeconomic status. The findings were as expected: the more deprived an area, the higher the number of vape outlets.
Utilizing the University of Otago’s deprivation index, which rates an area’s socioeconomic status on a scale from 1 (most affluent) to 10 (least affluent), the connection was clear. Areas at deprivation level 1 have 22 vape stores. The number increases with each step up the scale, culminating in a whopping 202 stores in areas rated at level 10. This correlation holds true even when adjusting for population size.
The vaping industry insists its products are targeted at adult smokers seeking a healthier alternative. Jonathan Devery, the chair of the Vaping Industry Association of New Zealand, argues that for vaping to be effective as a smoking cessation tool, it needs to be as readily available as tobacco, especially in areas where the health and financial burdens of tobacco are higher.
Health Minister Ayesha Verrall expressed no surprise at these findings, citing similar patterns with tobacco and alcohol. She stressed the need for changes, including removing low-cost disposable vapes from shelves. These are often attractive to young people and those with lower incomes.
The government is taking steps to regulate the industry. New measures include phasing out disposable vapes, which retail for as little as $10, as part of a strategy to combat youth vaping. Further regulations have been introduced to curb the accessibility of vaping near schools.
Recent figures reveal that e-cigarettes are becoming an issue in primary and intermediate schools. The number of students suspended for smoking or vaping in these schools has now surpassed the number in secondary schools. To tackle this, the government is implementing regulations to reverse this worrying trend.
New laws have been enacted to prevent the establishment of vape stores within 300m of a school or marae, although existing stores are exempt. Vape shops near schools will still face significant restrictions on what they can sell, with particular focus on disposable vapes and those appealing to children.
While vaping is often marketed as a safer alternative to traditional smoking, its prevalence in low-income areas poses significant health and ethical concerns. With a regulatory framework in place, only time will tell if the tide can be turned on this alarming trend.