In December 2023, vaping regulation changes brought in by the previous government came into effect. The maximum nicotine strength allowed in disposable vapes reduced from 50mg/ml to 20mg/ml, and disposable devices were required to have a  child lock and removeable batteries.  The intention was to get vaping products favoured by young people (i.e. cheap, disposable, high-nicotine vapes) off the market, and thereby reduce youth vaping uptake.  Our study used a 20 year old “mystery shopper” to test the compliance of Specialist Vape Stores in the Wellington Region to these new regulations, and their age verification practices in January 2024.  Only one store (1.4%) requested age identification (ID) on entry to the R18 premises. In 50% of stores, ID was requested when a purchase was made; however, a third of those retailers proceeded with the sale despite the buyer not providing ID. Disposable vapes remained available for NZ$10 or less in most stores, and reusable starter kits were also widely available for NZ$10–20. Discounted high-nicotine disposables were sold for as little as NZ$2.50 each, with the cheapest vapes sold in the most socioeconomically deprived suburbs, where vape stores were clustered. Most low-price disposables did not comply with the new nicotine limits and safety regulations that came into force in December 2023. In the short term, low-price high-nicotine vapes were more easily available than ever, following the regulation change. 

The findings highlight the need to disallow discounting of vaping products to avoid “dumping” of non-compliant products, and price promotions that make vapes easily affordable to children. (By law, tobacco products cannot be sold at a discount and the same should apply to vaping products – the current exception for vaping products should be removed.) The study also highlights the need to clarify ambiguities in current and future regulations, as the industry have proved to be adept at exploiting any weaknesses to circumvent or push the boundaries set by government. Enforcement efforts need to be stepped up, and the government should explore additional measures that make the healthy choice the easy choice for young people. 

It is important to consider the wider context, the reasons vaping is attractive to young people, and how underage youth access vaping products. Research suggests ‘social supply’ from friends and family is most common, however a significant minority report buying vaping products themselves. Therefore tightening retail compliance is important, but it is only part of the picture. 

A careful, evidence-based approach is needed that puts young people’s well-being at the centre and takes youth concerns into account, whilst ensuring adults who smoke can easily access vaping products as quitting aids. A significant minority of young people are now addicted to nicotine – the last thing we need is a heavy crackdown on vapes that pushes nicotine-dependent youth towards tobacco smoking. A comprehensive approach is needed that includes provision of vaping cessation support services, and reinstates the evidence-based smokefree measures that were repealed earlier in the year, along with measures to make vapes less appealing and available to young people. 

To read the full research article head to:

Ball J, Katoa L, Hoek J (2024) Specialist vape store audit reveals poor compliance with new e-cigarette regulations. New Zealand Medical Journal, 137 (1596).