Smoking might not be cool anymore but vaping is quickly gaining fashion kudos among high school kids as young as 12 despite safety concerns.
Cottesloe Medical Centre GP Dr Deb Cohen-Jones says that while teenage smoking has dramatically declined in recent years, that hard-won public health feat is coming under threat as the magnitude of the teen vaping problem emerges.
Data reveals vape use more than doubled among Australians aged 14 and older between 2016 and 2019.
Meanwhile, one in six Australian 12 to 17-year-olds admit to trying it.
Teens say it’s not hard to get their hands on cheap imported and disposable vapes in a thriving Perth black market, despite the fact that in WA it is illegal to buy or import vapes without a doctor’s prescription.
Most troubling to Dr Cohen-Jones is how quickly vaping has seduced a generation of young people who would never have dreamed of lighting up a cigarette.
“Ultimately, vaping is causing addiction in a new generation,” says Dr Cohen-Jones.
“There was a good chunk of time when I wasn’t seeing school kids smoking much but now we are seeing them vaping and it is absolutely rife in high schools among kids from as young as 12 and 13 years old.”
Dr Cohen-Jones says young people are also vaping cannabis oil — another dangerous trend.
She says it is not yet clear what impacts some of the ingredients in e-cigarettes, known colloquially as vapes, could have on health.
The products haven’t been around long enough for scientists to know how they will affect the body over decades.
Young people are at particular risk of harm because their brains, lungs and bodies are still developing, she adds.
Meanwhile, vape use has become a huge challenge for parents and teachers with many WA high schools tackling the issue on almost a daily basis.
“The problem is, unlike with cigarettes, you can’t smell it so kids can just sneak into the bathrooms and have a vape and no one is the wiser which is why lots of schools have inserted vape detectors in the bathrooms,” notes Dr Cohen-Jones.
“The same thing applies in the home — parents would have no idea it’s going on.”
It doesn’t help that vapes come in discreet designs with some even resembling USB drives and pens.
Easy to conceal, they’re also cheap to access with disposable vapes selling online for less than $20.
“There is a huge illegal black market which is not being policed at all,” she adds, “and no regulation around what is in those vapes.”
Whether e-cigarettes help or harm health is still being intensely debated among health experts worldwide.
Most agree that vaping, while not without risk, is a far healthier alternative to smoking — if you already smoke and it is being prescribed by a doctor.
Proponents argue that for these smokers, vaping can be a lifeline.
On the other hand, research has shown most young people who start vaping were never smokers.
A comprehensive report released by the Australian National University and commissioned by the Australian Government found young non-smokers who vape are three times more likely to take up cigarette smoking than non-vapers.
Of increasing concern to many health experts, including Dr Cohen-Jones, is how a tool that was meant to help with the cessation of cigarette smoking is turning into a serious public health risk for young people.
Critics point out that when the vaping industry started, companies were adopting the marketing tactics used by Big Tobacco to get young people hooked on e-cigarettes.
Early advertising campaigns created a cool factor around vaping, using beautiful people and cute imagery, to draw in teenagers.
The products also came in fun flavours such as watermelon, grape, fairy floss and bubblegum which young people loved.
Now a multi-billion-dollar industry, the e-cigarette market overseas is increasingly being bought into by the big tobacco companies.
“These companies sold the world cigarettes with effective advertising and addictive ingredients, and it was a long time before the truth about their dangers came out,” notes Lung Foundation Australia CEO Mark Brooke.
“The writing’s on the wall for e-cigarettes and it’s time for the Federal Government to step in to protect Australia’s youth from lifelong health impacts including lung disease.”
The Minderoo Foundation is also calling on Federal and State Governments to act now to prevent a new generation of Australian kids becoming addicted to nicotine.
The reality is, just like cigarettes, many vapes also contain nicotine, which is a highly-addictive chemical.
Recent scientific testing showed that even vapes labelled ‘nicotine-free’ can have very high nicotine levels.
Earlier this year a NSW student was reportedly rushed to hospital after a seizure caused by “a massive dose of nicotine” from vaping in the school toilets.
“A huge issue is not being able to monitor how much nicotine they are having because the strength is unregulated when vapes are bought on the black market and events like poisoning, burns, lung injury from inhaling contaminated substances and seizures have been seen,” says Dr Cohen-Jones.
Inhaling dangerous chemicals
The majority of vapes are manufactured in China and what goes into them does not always represent what is on the product label.
ANU professor of epidemiology and public health Emily Banks, who was tasked by the Federal health department to investigate the harms of e-cigarettes, found vaping poses serious risks — particularly for young people.
“Nicotine use in children and adolescents can lead to lifelong addiction issues as well as difficulties in concentration and learning,” explains Professor Banks.
Her report also found vaping puts teenagers at an increased risk of addiction, poisoning, seizures, trauma, burns and lung injury.
“There are myths targeting young people too; the false ideas that vapes wouldn’t be widely available if they were dangerous and ‘it’s just water vapour’,” she adds.
The reality is there’s remarkably little regulation of what’s going into the e-liquids and very little existing research on the health impacts of several of the ingredients already detected in the them.
Another major study co-led by Associate Professor Alexander Larcombe from Curtin University found toxic and harmful chemicals in several dozen vapes readily available in Australia.
It found evidence of a group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which has been linked to lung, bladder and gastrointestinal cancers.
Dangerously high levels of a lung irritant in an almond flavouring was also found in 61 out of 65 vapes tested.
Another chemical commonly used in disinfectants and pesticides was detected in up to 30 samples.
Similar to findings in other studies, nicotine was also present in nine of the vape liquids tested despite them being advertised as nicotine-free.
“The government recently banned four different ingredients but apart from that there is still a bit of a free for all … and e-liquid manufacturers are not listing the full ingredients,” says Curtin University Professor Ben Mullins.
“They generally appear to add things on the basis that these might be acceptable food-grade chemicals and flavourings but the issue is there is a big difference between eating something and inhaling it.”
Professor Mullins also believes there are still too many unknowns about vaping, adding: “It is definitely healthier for kids not to vape.
“In many countries vaping has been shown to lead to smoking and even if the person continues to vape rather than smoke there is a likelihood of significant acute and chronic health problems.”