Young people who’ve never smoked cigarettes are taking up vaping in huge numbers.
The Paediatric Society of New Zealand is concerned enough about it to call for action to reduce access to vapes for young people. The government is responding by banning disposables, restricting advertising, and stopping vape shops from opening within 300 metres of a school.
But for Māori, who are particularly at risk, that’s not enough — and putting a stop to vape shops is an urgent matter of mana motuhake, writes Erin Matariki Carr.
Tāneatua is my mum’s hometown, and mine too since I moved back five years ago. We are a Māori community of about 1500 people, based at the meeting place of two of Te Urewera’s awa, about a 20-minute drive south of Whakatāne.
Up until last year, we had four main stores in our little town: the superette, the Bakehouse, the service station and the liquor store. Now, we have a fifth: a dedicated vape shop.
And it’s called the “Taney Vape Shop”, branded with a nickname for our tipuna Tāneatua, tohunga navigator for the Mataatua waka. The worst part is that the shop is located right next door to the Tūhoe Hauora rangatahi hub and is directly opposite our kids’ playground — all with bright colours glowing behind a see-through curtain next to the superette.
To be clear, I get why people vape. We all need our ways to cope in this colonised reality. And some whānau were stoked that we could have more flavours of vapes for sale here, rather than driving to Whakatāne. But once we realised that these shops will be marketing candy-flavoured nicotine in the faces of our kids, we realised this conversation is actually about mana motuhake.
Mana motuhake is about our responsibility to care for ourselves, and that includes making decisions for ourselves and our communities. But the decision to set up a vape shop was made by shopkeepers who are motivated by profit, and by the government’s Vaping Regulatory Authority which does not include mana whenua or community voices in their decision-making process.
The proliferation of vape shops throughout Māori communities like ours is a clear example of the imposition of settler colonial law over our mana motuhake.
Settler colonial law is the legal system brought over by the British Crown to displace the legal system that was already here, our kawa and tikanga Māori. Under settler colonial law, the government has allowed a very easy application process for vape shops to be established.
Essentially, the Vaping Authority will grant you what they call a “Specialised Vape Retailer” licence if you can show that you’ll have a separate till, and more than 70 percent of your sales will be vape products; you have an “18+ Only” sign on the door; you pay a small fee; and you don’t advertise vapes outside your shop (though you are allowed to have windows so people can see in to the bright lights and colours of your display).
Until last month, location has not been a factor in the decision-making to grant these licences. Now, new rules mean the shops can’t be within 300 metres of a school, and vape packaging needs to be made less attractive to children. Soon there’ll be a ban on disposable vapes which are popular among youth.
Despite these new amendments, government health officials seem to still be buying into the tobacco industry’s genius framing that vaping is an off-ramp for cigarette smokers. When it’s undeniably clear that vapes are purpose-built on-ramps for youth addiction, ensuring nicotine sales from our upcoming generations.
Young people across Aotearoa who have never smoked cigarettes, nor even had an interest in them, are now buying vapes daily. Smoking rates among Year 10 students were at an all time low of 1.1 percent in 2022, while vaping among teenagers has tripled in Aotearoa over the last two years. Nineteen percent of rangatahi vape regularly and 10 percent are vaping daily. Māori girls are most at risk with 21 percent now vaping daily. Our schools are already confiscating or finding discarded vapes daily.
Inhaling vapour to the lungs has been shown to cause lung disease although it’s too early to know about the long-term physical harm from vapes.
Mentally, nicotine addiction disrupts focus in school due to withdrawals and mood swings, even fights among kids over vapes, which teachers and parents now have to manage. Vape trash also deeply harms Papatūānuku, being an un-recyclable mess of plastic, e-waste (from lithium batteries for heating technology) and toxic waste from residual vape juice.
This is settler colonial decision-making at its worst, placing our whakapapa in danger and prioritising corporate needs over people and Papatūānuku.
These are our communities, our whenua and our whakapapa. These vapes attack the very breath of our tamariki — breath given by Tānemāhuta to Hineahuone, breath we acknowledge at the end of our karakia with Tīhei mauri ora.
These shops service our communities of Tāneatua, Rūātoki, Te Waimana and Rewatu. The same lands our tipuna lived on, making decisions for our communities in line with their kawa and tikanga. When our tipuna made decisions, high on the list of priorities were protecting whakapapa, whenua, and the breath of our coming generations. It would likely be considered illegal under their process to enable a shopkeeper to benefit from the addiction and dependency of our next generations, because that is the opposite of mana motuhake.
It’s our responsibility to care for ourselves and our whakapapa — that is mana motuhake. Our communities are already pouring countless resources into battling a wide range of addictions within our whānau. We’ve got to get better at stopping these issues before they reach our community.
When we first heard that the Taney Vape Shop was coming to our town, community, school and marae leaders gathered and met with the shopkeepers, writing a letter requesting that they not open the shop for the sake of our tamariki.
At the end of the day, the shopkeepers were entitled to ignore us and collect their licence from Wellington and make their profits. That is the law, as it stands.
Shopkeepers and the Vaping Authority ought to speak with and listen to mana whenua, local hapū and iwi, like those of Tūhoe and Ngāti Pūkeko. I believe our hapū and hāpori should be able to exercise mana motuhake and just say, “no”.
No, Ministry of Health’s Vaping Authority, you cannot license this shop to be here in our rohe because it puts our kids and our future at risk. It breaches our tikanga, and so it’s not sanctioned by our people.
The licence should be revoked, and the shop closed immediately.
Living by our own kawa and tikanga, and being able to make decisions for ourselves, is mana motuhake. Suckling on an electronic teat of nicotine to create addiction and dependency is not. Instead of the government pruning the law, changing the advertising and moving shops around, we need transformation at the root of our system – replacing the imposed settler colonial law with the laws of these lands, kawa and tikanga Māori.
We have enough to heal from without our next generations expending their precious breath on vapes. Only our own communities and our own ways can guide us out of this mess.
Erin Matariki Carr (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Awa) was raised in Whakatāne and currently lives in her hometown of Tāneatua. Matariki completed her studies at Victoria University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Spanish. She has experience in Māori legal systems, including a focus on constitutional transformation, Indigenous governance, and Te Urewera legal personhood. Matariki is co-lead of RIVER Aotearoa Charitable Trust, a Research Fellow for Associate Professor Claire Charters at the University of Auckland, member of Te Kuaka NZA and a facilitator with Tūmanako Consultants.
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