Marewa Glover Interview: Vaping and Tobacco Control in New Zealand
A couple of weeks ago Michael Grey looked at the difference in vaping laws between New Zealand and the USA. I thought that was pretty interesting, so to find out a bit more about how Kiwi vapers are doing I spoke to Associate Professor Marewa Glover about the law and what’s happening at the moment. Prof. Glover has been one of the leading pro-vaping voices in New Zealand for years, and she’s worked especially hard to improve access to vapor products for the Indigenous Māori peoples. Compared to the average professor from the northern hemisphere she has a refreshingly open approach, and talking to her was a real education. Here’s what she had to say.
Me: Hi Marewa. So you’re an academic from New Zealand. Can you tell me how you got interested in vaping?
Marewa Glover: Of course. I’m an Associate Professor at Massey University, in the School of Public Health. How I got interested in vaping was originally through Dr Murray Laugesen. I was involved with him through End Smoking New Zealand. Murray and another colleague of mine, Grace Wong, heard about e-cigarettes from overseas. We’d actually been lobbying for Swedish Snus to be allowed in New Zealand, but we weren’t successful with convincing our public health and tobacco control colleagues of the amount of harm that could have prevented.
Me: Snus is illegal in the EU as well, which seems crazy.
MG: Yeah, unfortunately, we didn’t get any changes in the law on snus, which we saw as a good harm reduction tool. So then Murray kept looking for anything new that was coming out, and he found electronic cigarettes. And right away when Hon Lik first announced that he’d developed the cigalike, he was interested. In fact, Murray did some of the early work with Ruyan on the toxicity of the vapor. Then Hayden McRobbie came back to New Zealand and began a small trial on how fast nicotine was absorbed from e-cigs, and he invited me to help with that. So basically I’ve been involved for a long time, keeping up with research and lobbying for e-cigs as a harm reduction tool.
Me: How were e-cigarettes received when they appeared in New Zealand?
MG: I don’t know! I think there were a few vapers early on. Now I’m involved with a survey of vapers and there’s one who’s been vaping about nine years, I think he’s one of the longest. He had throat cancer and quit for the operation, then he relapsed. He was very disappointed with himself, but then he heard about e-cigarettes in the media and did some research. Not long after that he went to the USA on holiday, found a vape shop and bought one.
Me: Why couldn’t he get one in New Zealand?
MG: Well, he was one of the first vapers in the country. He had to research it all himself. There was no market, and very few people had heard of vaping. There were little bits of research happening, some of us talking among our colleagues in tobacco control. It was when it started to become more visible, and there was talk in the media about the market taking off overseas, that some colleagues started to look more seriously at electronic cigarettes. And quite a few of them decided, probably four or five years ago, that this was not something they wanted coming here. And that firmed up the position against electronic cigarettes.
Me: From what I’ve heard the situation in New Zealand isn’t as bad as Australia, but still not great.
MG: Well, we have vape shops here. There are a couple of chains. You can’t get nicotine liquids here though, so vapers have to import that and there is a bit of a black market. We’ve had the Associate Minister of Health call for submissions though, to be discussed at parliamentary level. Submissions closed a couple of weeks ago and that was really the first time a lot of people in public health were really given permission to learn about and talk about electronic cigarettes.
Me: Uh what?
MG: Oh yeah, before that it was pretty much shut down. In some places, you just weren’t allowed to talk about electronic cigarettes at work. It was really a head in the sand attitude, an idea that if we ignored vaping it would just go away. They hoped that it will eventually be banned altogether.
But with the Minister for Health calling for submissions, it was put out to the public in the sense of, “Well, there’s lots of people vaping, we have to do something about this and get some clarity.” And it was put in the way that we could see they wanted to do something, to get nicotine liquids to be allowed. Now the battle is over access, and where it’s going to be allowed.
Me: Well, that’s something. Anyway, you mentioned that there’s a black market?
MG: Sure. There was a little one, and that’s got a lot bigger recently because it’s something people want. Now that it looks fairly certain the government’s going to legalize nicotine for import and sale, we have some vape shops that are openly saying, “We sell nicotine liquids.” It’s a bit of a complicated situation. It’s not legal, but the government’s saying something needs to be done, and we’re all expecting the law to be changed, and some people are jumping the gun.
Me: That sounds pretty similar to Canada.
MG: Oh, does it? I think it’s creating a pretty unfair situation here though. There are a lot of businesses that are trying very hard to be responsible and obey the law, and it’s putting them in a difficult position. They can’t compete with the ones that are ignoring it, and obviously they can’t compete with overseas vendors either.
Me: How are things going for vape shops, then?
MG: Actually things are going well. Last year, when we had our first national vape day, one of the early vendors had one store run by himself. Now he has two stores and seven employees, and that’s happened just in one year.
Me: Not bad growth for a year.
MG: Well no. That’s just in a small metropolitan-sized town, it’s not a major city. Vaping is growing here. There’s another chain that now has fifteen stores. They also sell other stuff, bongs and stuff, but they do have a good range of electronic cigarettes and liquids. And they now have fifteen stores throughout the country.
I’ve heard statistics, and I also estimate, that say a third of smokers throughout the country are now vaping. What we don’t know is how many of them have gone on to quit, or are still smoking and vaping, and certainly the statistics about how many have tried them are pretty useless really. We need to know how many people are using them regularly.
Me: Being from the UK I’m probably spoiled by the information that’s available from the Smoking Toolkit Study.
MG: (Laughs) Yes. I think the problem is that the people who’re doing that research here aren’t in touch with the vaping community and they don’t understand the phenomenon at all. The people who’re running the surveys haven’t even attempted to get my advice on the questions. They don’t even understand the stuff. I’m not hopeful really.
Me: It’s one problem I see a lot, bad science that’s done because people don’t know what they’re doing.
MG: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of researchers out there writing about this topic, about e-cigarettes and vaping products, and they don’t really understand the difference between vaping and smoking. It’s very frustrating.
Me: So what do you think the government’s going to do?
MG: We’re waiting for the cabinet paper, which is supposed to go up to the cabinet before the end of the year. The track they went down is to look at amending the Smoke-Free Environments Act, and that could take another eighteen months. They’ll have to get wording done, write the legislation, it has to go to parliament to get voting done. So it’s still a long way away. But in the meantime, if people can get nicotine liquid without too much stress, we should see more people making the switch.
Me: You mentioned amending the Smoke-Free Environments Act. What does that mean?
MG: Well, it kind of leans towards treating electronic cigarettes as a tobacco product, which is problematic, and also to treating vaping as similar to smoking. So they certainly haven’t made up their minds about a lot of things. But tobacco control is dominated by one opinion, which is that vaping should only be allowed temporarily as a quit method, and that it certainly shouldn’t be allowed everywhere. So they’re arguing that vapor products should only be available on prescription, or from pharmacies and specialist vape stores. And they’re pushing for a licensing system for all retailers of tobacco products, including vape products. So their ultimate goal, as they’ve said publicly, is to stamp out smoking – all smoking, 100% of smoking – and then move to eliminate electronic cigarettes from the market.
Me: Well, that’s, erm… that’s ambitious.
MG: (Laughs) Well yes, it’s a pretty extreme prohibitionist position. What I said in my submission to the government is that they should be available everywhere tobacco products are available at least, as well as in vape stores. If people can buy cigarettes at their local market or the petrol station or wherever, they should also be able to buy electronic cigarettes. In fact, I think they should have to sell them. Anyone selling tobacco products should have to have a certain ratio of their stock as electronic cigarettes.
Me: Actually that’s an excellent idea. Even in relatively liberal countries like the UK, most supermarkets will sell a few cigalikes, but if you want good gear or liquids you have to go to a specialist vape shop. But every supermarket, every newsagents or corner shop or petrol station, has a huge range of traditional tobacco. It seems odd.
MG: Yeah, it does.
Me: But it does sound like, even if there’s a ban on nicotine liquids, that enforcement in New Zealand hasn’t been as extreme as it has in, for example, Australia.
MG: No, we haven’t had that. For example, Hayden McRobbie is actually working part time for the Ministry of Health on this issue, so I’m hoping that we are going to be more pragmatic, and that we’ll be more compassionate. That we won’t go as far as Australia in terms of draconian laws.
But unfortunately some of our tobacco control people do look up to Australia. Their ideology isn’t from New Zealand; it’s international. It comes from Australia, from California, from the European Union. And it’s punitive. It’s an international agenda, but I’m hoping that New Zealand, being smaller, will be able to resist.
Me: So that’s the situation now. What do you think the Ministry’s going to do in the future?
MG: Well, so many people are vaping that I think they pretty much have to legalize nicotine liquid. I’m pretty sure they’ll ban sales to under-18s, but even the academics who’re reluctant say it doesn’t make sense to have tobacco products more freely available than vape products. So that’s what the Ministry has to sort out. Really they just have to make the amendments to get nicotine liquid sold freely.
The other issue is about tax. I don’t think they’ll impose a tax, because they need to maintain the value difference. Right now it’s much cheaper to vape than it is to smoke and they need to keep that. Cigarettes are very, very expensive here. They’re so expensive that we now have regular robberies of places that sell tobacco. Not just a couple of youths, but large robberies. And there’s a serious black market in tobacco, and people trying to grow their own. Seeds are being sold, tobacco plants. I keep hearing about this. So I don’t think pushing for higher and higher prices is going to work, because what we’ve done is created an extremely attractive product for a black market.
Me: What price are cigarettes now?
MG: It’s about $20 for a pack of twenty, and that’s going up to $25. In a few years, it will be $30. And we have a minimum pack size too. You can’t buy fewer than twenty cigarettes. So we have people breaking the law to import e-liquid, we have people breaking the law in the black market, and we have people breaking the law by stealing tobacco. We don’t want that going on, so I don’t expect there to be a new excise tax.
And the other thing I expect to see, which just shows nastiness and a lack of understanding from tobacco control, is that vaping will be banned in places where smoking is banned.
Me: Well, it sounds like things aren’t great, but at least they’re moving in the right direction.
MG: Oh yeah. Here’s a story that I’ve heard from two separate cities now. We have a problem with homelessness in New Zealand, and I’ve heard that homeless people are vaping. Even homeless people have realized that it’s cheaper than smoking, so they’re vaping. I thought that was pretty cool.
Me: Well yes. And it’s a challenge for homeless people to vape, because they need a source of power to charge batteries. So obviously it has enough extra value to them that they’ll make a bit more effort in an already difficult life.
MG: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, needing a source of power. One of the stories, there’s a homeless guy who vapes on the street and there’s a guy who walks past every day, and he tops him up with juice from his own supply. And I think that’s a really inspiring story.
Me: So it sounds like the homeless have a better understanding of it than a lot of public health people?
MG: (Laughs) Yeah, it does.
Me: Obviously you’re an exception to that. Anyway thanks for your time, and thanks for all your work on behalf of vaping.
MG: And thanks for getting in touch!