5 Jun 2016

E-cigarettes 'could help people quit'

4:55 pm on 5 June 2016

A health researcher and an economist are calling for the legalisation of vaping as an alternative to hikes in tobacco taxes.

E-cigarette

Photo: 123rf

As announced in the Budget, the government is pushing ahead with significant increases in cigarette taxes as a way of discouraging people from smoking.

The cost of a packet of 20 cigarettes is to rise to $30 by 2020, but some researchers say there is evidence that current policies, including tobacco tax rises, were not succeeding in reducing smoking.

Otago University health professor Tony Blakely, whose research monitored the contribution of smoking to mortality and cigarette smoking, said taxing was an effective way of reducing cigarette smoking.

"For every 1 percent increase in price you probably reduce consumption by about 0.4 to 0.5 percent ... that reduction in consumption is split roughly 50 to 50 between people quitting and people reducing the number of cigarettes."

But he said with the latest legislation taking prices so high, New Zealand was moving into new territory.

Prime Minister John Key has said e-cigarettes could play a role in reducing conventional cigarette consumption in future, if proven safe.

It is illegal in New Zealand to sell e-cigarette liquid containing nicotine; only Ministry of Health-approved nicotine replacement therapies such as patches and gum can be sold.

People smoke e-cigarettes by inhaling a liquid vapour produced by vapouriser - a practice backed by the government in the UK, which allows them to be sold everywhere, including in supermarkets and at corner shops.

Prof Blakely said the benefits of vapourisers included a 50 percent increase in quit rates when people vaped while trying give up cigarettes.

But he said there were some possible downsides.

Health researcher Marewa Glover has worked on tobacco control issues for 23 years and is an internationally recognised authority on electronic cigarettes and their use.

She said although she supported tax increases over the past nine years, the Health Ministry's 2014- 2015 research data showed no significant decrease for Māori and Pacific people since 2006 - 2007.

"That has given me reason to pause and to question if we are going on the right track here."

Prof Glover said legalising vaping could be worth considering.

She said there were many "lies" circulating about the safety of vaping, including "dodgy research" that deliberately created negative results.

But British research such as the Public Health England report and a review by the Royal College of Physicians UK had concluded that vaping was about 95 percent safer than smoking, she said.

"There are some unknowns but all signals - looking at the UK, looking at the US, and the drop in prevalence in those countries - far more rapid than we've experienced here."

Economist Eric Crampton, of market-oriented public policy think tank The New Zealand Initiative, said tobacco taxes would hit poor people hard.

"Can we really say that something is working and effective in reducing consumption if it's putting that kind of a burden on some of our poorest communities," he said.

"Especially when we have alternatives available like legalising vaping."

But Prof Blakely said the benefits of legalising vaping were uncertain, especially since smoking uptake among young people had tapered off.

"If you renormalise tobacco smoking by having vaping there and you slow the reduction in uptake - the initiation by youth - if you slow that down because you change the cultural norms, you can actually derail the goal of getting to say a tobacco free New Zealand."

Prof Blakely said there should be more research into vaping before it is promoted as an alternative to smoking. He agreed that the financial impact on people who continue to smoke was significant.

The panelists agreed that more support is needed for programmes to help people stop smoking.

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