The New Zealand Government announced today it will change the law to legalise the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes. Products will be legally sold at some point next year.
The change is a big win for the e-cigarette industry - its products won't be in plain packaging, nor will the hefty taxes on normal tobacco be applied.
Associate Health Minister Nicky Wagner said the change came despite the fact scientific evidence of the safety of e-cigarettes was still developing.
And despite stressing the "low risk" approach taken because of that lack of certainty, Wagner encouraged reporters at Parliament to try vaping.
"I have [tried vaping]. But I'm not very good at it but I don't smoke either. I suggest anyone who smokes here has a go at vaping, too.
"Around the world we can't get clear research about this. But what we're thinking is they are about 95 per cent less harmful than cigarettes."
The new rules for all e-cigarettes and e-liquid products, whether they contain nicotine or not, include restricting sales to people 18 years and over, banning vaping in indoor areas where smoking is prohibited, and restrictions on advertising.
Broader e-cigarette advertising, such as on radio, TV and billboards, won't be allowed but retailers will be able to display the products at the point-of-sale.
Point-of-sale advertising was concerning, said University of Otago Professor Janet Hoek, co-director of Aspire 2025 - a research focus to support the Government's goal of New Zealand becoming smokefree by 2025.
"Smokers are not the only people who will see these displays and there is not enough detail as to how [advertising restrictions] will ensure children are protected from e-cigarette marketing.
"Overseas examples of e-cigarette marketing suggest these have used provocative themes likely to appeal to young people," Hoek said, adding that researchers from her university and the University of Auckland had submitted if the status quo were to change then sales should be restricted to specialist vape stores and pharmacies.
Associate Professor Marewa Glover, from Massey University's School of Public Health, said banning vaping where smoking was banned would create "unfortunate confusion" that both were equally harmful, when vaping was safer.
Wagner said the Government had considered applying the same tobacco excise duties on vaping products but had decided not to.
"I think that's an important thing so when a smoker goes into the dairy he or she will see cigarettes at a very high price and e-cigarettes much cheaper."
She was not concerned that some big tobacco firms were behind many e-cigarette products: "I think the important thing is we want the health outcomes. Whoever sells them...I don't think is really important."
While many stores openly sell nicotine e-cigarettes and liquid, doing so is illegal. No retailers have been prosecuted for sales.
Users "vape" on an e-cigarette, inhaling its nicotine-containing vapour, in the way that smokers inhale the smoke of a tobacco cigarette.
Wagner also announced plans to set up a new regulatory regime that can assess and approve products that are marketed as less harmful alternatives to smoking tobacco.
These products include heat-not-burn cigarettes and vaporisers.
Currently, new products are likely to be prohibited by the Smoke-Free Environments Act. The new regime could see these regulated as consumer products.
In England, e-cigarettes are the leading form of quit-smoking aid, used by 35 per cent of smokers trying to quit. However, some researchers argue that e-cigarettes risk providing a "gateway" into smoking for youth.
New Zealand's Ministry of Health has been monitoring evidence on the role of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation.
Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox this month said the Government should seriously consider subsidising vaping as a tool to help quit smoking.
Today, Wagner said if an e-cigarette got approved as a stop-smoking medicine under the Medicines Act the Government may consider subsidising it.
About 546,000 Kiwis smoke daily, 15 per cent of the adult population. Every day on average, at least 13 people die from a smoking-related disease - about 5000 a year.
Half of smokers die from a smoking-related illness and on average their deaths will be 14 years earlier than if they didn't smoke.