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Students’ e-cigarette use increases after legalisation

13 October 2021

Students are vaping more since nicotine-containing e-cigarettes became legal in New Zealand in 2018, a research team led by University of Canterbury Health Sciences Adjunct Fellow Dr Ben Wamamili has found.


Dr Ben Wamamili researches the prevalence of vaping amongst young people in Aotearoa New Zealand.

1,932 students were surveyed in March 2018, just before nicotine-containing e-cigarettes became legal, and 2,004 students were surveyed one year later in March 2019, across all of Aotearoa’s universities.

Dr Wamamili’s team found that 13.5% of students were vaping in 2019 compared to 6.8% before it was legal. Slightly more students were smoking regular cigarettes in 2019 (12.1%) than in 2018 (10.6%).

The results were unexpected.


“Yes, we were surprised by a significant increase in students who vaped in 2019 without a corresponding decrease in students who smoked cigarettes,” Dr Wamamili says. “This suggests that students are not necessarily turning to vaping as a way to give up cigarette smoking.”

Another startling find was that more students seem to be vaping – illegally - in smoke-free spaces. “The apparent increase in students vaping in smoke-free spaces is of great concern. If vaping in smoke-free spaces became widespread and led to increased tobacco smoking in these spaces, this would be a source of considerable harm to public health.”

Students were also less likely to perceive e-cigarettes as less harmful than tobacco after they were widely available. “There was a significant decrease, of 3.1%, in students who perceived e-cigarettes as less harmful than tobacco cigarettes in 2019 compared with 2018. The Ministry of Health encourages smokers to use e-cigarettes for tobacco cessation,” Dr Wamamili says.

The issues can be addressed with better education and possibly by using technology, he says. “Education and health promotion strategies including compliance with the smoke-free legislation is a good starting point. Technologies such as mobile phone apps could also be harnessed by health providers to provide accurate and reliable information about vaping.”

Dr Wamamili’s research paper Cigarette smoking and e-cigarette use among university students in New Zealand before and after nicotine-containing e-cigarettes became widely available: results from repeat cross-sectional surveys was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on 8 October. It was co-authored by the University of Canterbury’s Professor Randolph Grace, School of Psychology, Speech and Hearing, and Pat Coope, who recently retired from the College of Education, Health and Human Development.

New Zealand aims to become a smoke-free nation by the year 2025; the Government began working toward this goal in 2011.

Read more about vaping here.

Listen to Dr Wamamili’s interview on RNZ here.

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