A Christchurch vape shop owner has fled the country as he was due to appear in court charged with selling to minors and peddling illegal flavours and products.

The man, Xiaoming He, was to be the first person prosecuted since vaping has been regulated with the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act 1990, and was scheduled to appear in court today.

However, the Chinese national reportedly bought a one way ticket out of the country, and was reported missing after he was called to appear.

He faced three charges related to selling vapes to people under 18 years old and five for selling vapes in flavours that He was not permitted to sell, according to the Ministry of Health.

The remaining four charges were for selling single cigarettes or selling cigarette packets that did not display standard health warnings.

Lawyer Klaudia Courteney, for the Ministry of Health, said it was unlikely He would return.

He’s defence lawyer Todd Nicholls asked Judge Stephen O’Driscoll for leave to withdraw as counsel, which was granted.

The formal proof hearing was scheduled for May 29.

He could face fines if the charges were proved. However, as the charges were category 1, fines were laid as a penalty, and a warrant could not be issued for his arrest.

If he does not return to New Zealand, he may not pay the fine.

Health New Zealand – Te Whatu Ora carried out a substantial investigation into He’s shop, including conducting several controlled purchase operations.

‘How are we to protect our children?’

Vape-Free Christhcurch co-founder Anna Stewart was in court today.

“After being witness to the court proceedings today, I left with emotions that fall somewhere between heartbreak and devastation,” she said.

“Mr He in essence is permitted to simply turn and leave NZ without facing any consequences for his actions.

“We have enough evidence to know there are far too many stores selling to young people already but with consequences like these, how are we to protect our children?

“Today, I had hoped to return a vape which he’d sold my child, and tell him that at last he might share in the cost of his actions.

“Unfortunately, I left with it still in my hand, and more questions than answers. What can be done, and who will step up and do it, to stop this from happening again?”

Customs responds

On why He was not stopped at the border when trying to leave, a Customs spokesperson said alerts were placed on Customs’ system to intercept travellers for Customs’ purposes or for other government agencies who have a Memorandum of Understanding with Customs.

“If an alert placed by another agency is triggered, Customs responds according to alert instructions, which may include a referral to the relevant agency.

“If there is no border alert on an individual, travellers are not stopped unless part of routine screening procedures.”