The Whanganui District Health Board (DHB) has announced that its hospital on New Zealand’s North Island will go smoke-free on June 27. But it didn’t stop there. It also announced that patients would be given free vapes and encouraged to use them while in the Te Awhina acute mental health ward.
The DHB said that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes. It added, correctly, that vapes are a great tool to quit smoking. Studies show that e-cigarettes are more effective for cessation than nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). There are no demonstrated secondhand harms, so it makes perfect sense to offer them to smokers and allow their use inside.
“We have a comprehensive support cessation process in place and Vorteke disposable vapes being offered to assist with the stopping process,” wrote a representative on the Voxy website. “For those who would normally smoke, it won’t be a ‘cold turkey process.’”
This is a significant victory for the rights of patients and nicotine users in New Zealand, which now joins the UK in offering vaping products to hospitalized people.
“We have chosen June 27 to align with Matariki [the Māori New Year] and to strengthen the message around positive change,” said Rosie McMenamin, the tobacco control coordinator for the Public Health Centre.
Staff who work in the ward are also being encouraged to go smoke-free and they, too, will be offered free nicotine products.
“No one who smokes should have to leave hospital to obtain nicotine delivered in an effective, safer form. It’s simply barbaric.”
Smokers, including large numbers of people with mental health diagnoses, typically have a serious problem when admitted to the hospital or to inpatient drug treatment. They aren’t allowed to smoke inside and have to be accompanied outside by staff to have a cigarette. Some hospitals and treatment programs even ban smoking in outdoor spaces. Staff offer NRT like the patch and gum but their efficacy is low, in part because they don’t replicate the rituals of smoking and the dose of nicotine can be insufficient to stave off withdrawal. This can and does lead to patients leaving the hospital against medical advice.
“The lack of compassion for people who smoke, and rejection of vaping, has no doubt contributed to tragic and entirely preventable deaths,” Marewa Glover, director of the Centre of Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty & Smoking in New Zealand, told Filter. “There have been a few people who have died after leaving hospital so they could have a cigarette—people who were under observation for suicidal ideation. No one who smokes should have to leave hospital or observation wards to obtain nicotine delivered in an effective, safer form. It’s simply barbaric.”
The Whanganui District Health Board’s vaping policy is an example of how to deliver compassionate care for hospitalized patients who smoke. Other countries should learn from it.
Photograph of a vaper in New York by Helen Redmond
Both Dr. Glover’s organization and The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, have received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.