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How slack age verification online impacts our youth

Ruby Griffiths: Pop-up age verification is a lazy, flawed and irresponsible system that is ripe for being taken advantage of
Ruby Griffiths
Content Creator and Producer at The Platform
May 5th, 2022

OPINION: Throughout my high school experience there were no vapes. Smoking cigarettes was not common either. From my point of view, smoking was not cool; it was never cool.

However, once I left high school and vapes came into the market as a “healthy” alternative, more and more of my peers began using them, and the temptation was too much. This is what young people are experiencing today; peer pressure and the false security that vaping isn’t as bad as smoking. Cigarettes are too intimidating and ominous but vapes are discreet and unchallenging. 

Worryingly, there is also a serious issue with the lack of age verification on sites that are selling vapes and vape products. Age verification is an issue because it makes it far too easy for young people who see vaping as ‘cool’ to access the products. At an age that is particularly vulnerable to feeling ostracised from their peers if they don’t take part in things that are perceived as ‘trendy’, young people can feel isolated and inferior. 

Addiction is also a major concern for young people. Their brains are still developing and addiction can stunt that progress and cause many social issues. That is why laws are in place for similar dangerous products - like alcohol or cigarettes - to protect those who are too young to make life-altering decisions for themselves.

The New Zealand Smoke-Free Environments Act 1990 restricts the sale of tobacco/nicotine products to those under the age of 18. This is something that is not monitored for most online sales of vaping products. After a bit of digging, I found that Shosha, Vapourium and The Vaping Kiwi are some of the largest online vape distributors nationwide, and none of them fully verify that each customer is over the age of 18.

More recently, The Smoke-free Environments and Regulated Products Amendment Act 2020, otherwise known as the Amendment Act began on the 11th of November 2020. This Act seeks to “ensure that vaping products are available to smokers who want to switch to a less harmful alternative and ensures that vaping products are not marketed or sold to people under 18.”

The Act also claims that the sale of vaping products and non-nicotine vape products is prohibited to anyone under the age of 18. It prohibits the supply of vaping products directly or indirectly to anyone under the legal age. Given the lax processes I have seen online, this means that these companies are not meeting the legal requirements of either piece of legislation.

The Shosha and Vapourium sites feature a pop-up before customers can proceed to browse and buy products. These pop-ups ask customers to confirm they are over the age of 18. Clicking yes allows you onto the site, clicking no can redirect you to either the Google search engine or a Wikipedia page that gives you the definition of a minor.

This is far from a deterrent. It is not rocket science to lie and make a simple click claiming you are over the age of 18. The Vaping Kiwi website does not have a pop-up when you enter the site. The only form of verification is in the ‘shopping cart’ where you tick a box that states you are over the age of 18. Again, this is something the average 15 year-old could figure out how to get around. 

The Vapourium pop-up claims that “ID is required upon delivery” which suggests that it is up to the courier companies to check the ID of the customer. Not the company itself. This is a lazy, flawed and irresponsible system that is ripe for being taken advantage of. Do they seriously think the couriers are checking ID? What if no one is home? Do they check the letterbox’s ID?

This negligent behaviour is potentially damaging the health of minors. Nicotine addictions can take a heavy toll on a young mind. For example, they can encourage mood disorders and lower impulse control. Some physical side effects include coughing, a dry mouth and throat, shortness of breath and headaches. Long term effects can include seizures, popcorn lung, strokes, and pneumonia.

In my personal experience, whilst vaping I noticed changes in my mood and shortness of breath. I imagine that underage users will experience the same or similar side-effects but may not be able to recognise what is causing them.

It is clear that Kiwi kids are at no less risk than their Australian counterparts. According to the Australian Government Department of Health Therapeutic Goods Administration:

from 1 October 2021, it will be illegal to buy nicotine vaping products from overseas websites (as well as locally) without a doctor's prescription.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) claims that this change is being made as 'vaping products being used by young people has increased by 96 per cent in Australia between 2015 and 2019.’ A study was done on 19,000 New Zealand secondary school students and found that a quarter (4,750) of them were regularly vaping.

The way I see it, we have two options. We can follow in the steps of Australia and install a system where a doctor's prescription is required to buy vaping products or we can utilise a tool New Zealand already has such as RealMe. RealMe was created by the Government and NZ Post to verify a person’s identity online.

This tool is used for organisations such as New Zealand banks, the Electoral Commission, StudyLink and more. Companies such as Shosha, Vapourium and The Vaping Kiwi could use this to verify online shoppers' age before entering the site and/or at checkout. Or the Government and these companies can continue to be ignorant and ignore the problem they are creating. 

Ruby is a producer and content creator for The Platform. Ruby has a BA in Media Studies and Philosophy from Victoria University and graduated in 2021.