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Vaping is attracting the cautious support of anti-tobacco campaigners

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Mel Morris tried to give up smoking using all the usual nicotine-replacement products – gum, patches and lozenges – without any success.

Then in 2015, she joined a pilot programme in which eight Māori women used e-cigarettes (vaping) in an attempt to stop smoking. Within a few weeks of starting the Vape2Save programme set up by public health advocate Rebecca Ruwhiu-Collins, Morris felt healthier and more energetic. After eight months she was also debt-free – vaping is 90% cheaper than smoking ready-made cigarettes.

Almost four years later, Morris still vapes but not as much as she used to smoke – “it depends on how much stress I have during the day,” she says – but she’s reduced the amount of nicotine in the “e-juice” she uses in her vaping device from 18mg a millilitre to just 8mg/ml.

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Morris is one of more than 300 mostly Māori women who have completed the seven-week Auckland-based programme. About 80% of them stopped smoking cigarettes completely for four weeks, which is the Ministry of Health’s definition of a non-smoker.

The goal of programmes such as Vape2Save – the name is a play on the fact that giving up smoking can save you money as well as save your health – is for participants to eventually give up vaping as well as smoking. However, Ruwhiu-Collins takes the view that even if that doesn’t happen, it’s better to keep on vaping, as Morris has, than to smoke cigarettes.

She says all the available evidence suggests that vaping is much less harmful than smoking tobacco. Most of the damage caused by smoking comes from the combustion chemicals released from burning tobacco.

Vaping hasn’t been around long enough for us to know what the long-term effects may be, nor has it been through the testing needed to become an approved (and subsidised) smoking-cessation aid. But Ruwhiu-Collins and others working in the field see it as a useful quit-smoking tool – particularly for Māori women, who have New Zealand’s highest smoking rate: 38% of them smoke, compared with an overall adult smoking rate of 16%.“They are a really hard group to get off tobacco.”

She says most of the women who have done the Vape2Save programme have tried giving up smoking many times before finally having success with vaping. “They are hardcore smokers who enjoy smoking and nothing has been able to replace it.”

The Health Promotion Agency is developing an awareness programme targeted at young Māori women about using vaping as a way to stop smoking. It’s supported by Māori public health organisation Hāpai Te Hauora. Mihi Blair, the organisation’s general manager of national tobacco control advocacy, says many Māori women live with high levels of stress and carry a lot of responsibility within their families. Having a cigarette is a chance to take some time out and relax, which can make it hard for them to quit; vaping provides a healthier alternative.

“They can go out and have a vape and have that breather and relax and go through the same behaviours as they do smoking a cigarette. The reality is that they’re living stressful, stressful lives, so let’s just focus on getting them to quit tobacco first.”

Action for Smokefree 2025 (ASH) also supports vaping as a quitting tool, particularly for Māori women, even though, as programme manager Boyd Broughton notes, that stand has sparked robust discussion among board members because of concerns about the tobacco industry’s growing involvement in marketing vaping. He says individuals’ sense of being personally conflicted is less important than the 5000 annual preventable deaths from tobacco.

Broughton says ASH supports the Government’s proposed changes to the Smoke-free Environments Act that would make it illegal to vape in schools, bars, restaurants and workplaces, and a plan to make it illegal for people to vape or smoke with children in the car.

However, he says it’s important not to lump vaping in with smoking and ban it from public places such as streets or beaches.

“We want to create an environment where safer products such as vaping are more accessible and more attractive than their alternative.”

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.