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'We don't promote to youth' says Philip Morris NZ official as high schools report students are vaping

The tobacco giant Philip Morris has denied it's promoting vaping and e-cigarettes to youth, after being told on TVNZ1's Q+A programme that high school students are vaping.

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The tobacco giant's NZ communications manager Peata Melbourne says it's not good news that school students are using e-cigarettes.

Vaping and e-cigarettes are being pushed by tobacco companies as a way to get smokers off traditional tobacco products.

There's concern not only about the unknown long-term health effects, but also that promoting vaping will entice a new generation of young people into addiction.

New Zealand communications manager for Philip Morris International, Peata Melbourne, told Q+A less than one per cent of young people who are non-smokers are taking up e-cigarette products.

Interviewer Jack Tame put to her that a study by Wainuiomata High School students found 20 per cent of the school's students were casual smokers, while 60 per cent were casual vapers. 

And he said Auckland Grammar School's principal reported half of his junior students owned a non-combustion product or had tried it, in what's been described in some quarters as an epidemic at the high school.

"Oh, look, that is not good news at all. That is not good news at all," Ms Melbourne responded.

"I mean, again, we don't promote to youth. We don't want youth to come anywhere near these products. We don't want non-smokers to come anywhere near these products. It is not for them. It is for people who just can't give up cigarettes," she said.

Tame asked how can the company get get people to move from cigarettes on to e-cigarette devices without attracting new people to those devices who otherwise wouldn't have been smoking in the first place.

"It's very tricky, actually," Ms Melbourne said.

"But what we have to remember is that we have to be able to communicate with smokers, right? And so the only way to do that at the moment is by, well, going where they go to get their cigarettes now. 

"Now, at the moment, it's really, really difficult to communicate to smokers or anyone about all these other products that are out there on the market. Because we don't support just our products; we support any alternative that's better than cigarettes."

Ms Melbourne said regulations are needed to allow the tobacco company to communicate with smokers directly "to give them an incentive to switch to better alternatives; but mostly to be able to educate them on what's out there on the alternatives, because at the moment, there's very little information out there for the smokers".

She said she wouldn't agree with advertising, "but we have to be able to communicate and educate".

Tame submitted that Philip Morris has targeted vulnerable groups as it is, having been active in whare, gone to some low socio-economic communities and approached Auckland Action Against Poverty.

"Jack, here's the problem I have with that statement is that I'm here at the company. Now, if that happened on my watch those lower income and those demographics that have been talked about, that's my demographic. There is no way that I would let anyone come and target my people and exploit them," Ms Melbourne replied. 

"What I would allow is for people to go in and educate them and inform them, but to exploit them in the way that's been talked about? No. No way," she said.

Strict regulations coming

There are a number of advertisements for smoking alternatives. And while the Ministry of Health supports vaping as an alternative to normal smoking, tighter regulations are coming. 

Health Minister David Clark told Q+A the Government plans to introduce a bill to Parliament in about a month that will ban the marketing of vaping to young people and prohibit flavours and colours in the products.

"Those things that would appeal to young people, that we know are used in lots of industries, are going to be strictly regulated," he said.

Dr Clark said if vaping is a gateway out of other tobacco products that's a good thing, but if it's a gateway in that's a bad thing.

"And the early evidence seems to be that its a little less harmful than other tobacco products," he said.

* Q+A is on TVNZ1 on Mondays at 9.30pm, and the episode is then available on TVNZ OnDemand and as a podcast in all the usual places.