A qualitative analysis of how underage adolescents access nicotine vaping products in Aotearoa New Zealand

This project was conducted by Katie Frost, supervised by Janet Hoek.

Despite regulations to reduce vaping product availability, youth vaping prevalence has continued to rise and around 10% of 14 to 15 year olds report daily vaping, a figure that rises to 20% among rangatahi Māori. Daily vaping requires on-going access to vaping products and cannot be easily explained as mere experimentation. This project explored how young people source vaping devices and e-liquids despite regulations that designate these as R18 products.

To address this question, we undertook in-depth interviews with 22 young people aged 16 or 17 who vaped at least once a week; we also included data from participants who met out inclusion criteria that had been collected for the Adolescent Lifestyles 2.0 project, which explored adolescents’ vaping practices. The interview guide explored three general supply routes: social supply, quasi-commercial supply, and commercial supply. We analysed the data using a reflexive thematic analysis approach.

Nearly all participants reported sharing vapes with peers; which enabled them to experience new flavours and devices, and join in a normative group practice. However, some felt troubled by requests to share with younger youth. Many used proxies to purchase vapes on their behalf; they reported approaching people they knew through social connections or “randoms” they had identified on social media. Quasi-commercial networks existed within schools and on social media, where youth operated small marketplaces and supplied vapes to others. Some participants purchased in their own right, usually from smaller retail outlets, although sourcing via proxies was an easier and more reliable option.

Evidence that young people access vapes easily and through varied sources suggests existing regulation requires greater monitoring and enforcement. Furthermore, policies that limited sales to R18 specialist vape stores could reduce the salience and accessibility of vaping products, while capping retailer numbers and introducing density measures could also make vaping products more difficult to obtain. Disallowing disposable vaping products would remove a visually appealing, easily accessed, and highly affordable product from the market. Stronger regulation of online supply channels, many of which appear to have weak age verification processes, could also reduce youth access to vaping products. Policy makers could also take a visionary step and consider introducing a nicotine free generation, although further research is needed to assess this measure’s feasibility.

Team members

Katie Frost, Jude Ball, Michaela Pettie, Janet Hoek, Anna Graham DeMello


HRC programme grant 19/641 (2019).