History seems doomed to repeat itself, as Australia’s youth find themselves in the throes of a vaping crisis. Teens are becoming addicted to vapes from an early age, and healthcare experts are worried about longer term consequences.
‘Vapes’, the colloquial term for e-cigarettes, have been circulating for close to a decade now, but user rates have skyrocketed over the past few years in particular. In the period 2016-2019, vaping rates doubled in Australia.
Although there isn’t yet data for use rates by age group, anecdotal evidence suggests vaping use among young people has accelerated rapidly, especially in the past year.
In NSW, almost a third of all young people aged 16-24 had vaped as of 2021 – an increase of 15% from three years prior. And children as young as thirteen years old are calling Quitline for help with handling vape addiction, for the first time in history.
Side-effects of Vaping
Vapes contain nicotine, so users risk all the same short-term impacts as cigarette smokers. Throat irritation, higher blood pressure and heart rate, and coughing and breathing problems are all side-effects of vaping. Some doctors report their young patients developed asthma after starting vaping.
But vaping products also contain a cocktail of other harmful chemicals, such as acetone – which is found in nail polish remover – and pulegone, found in insecticides.
These poisonous ingredients make many health professionals particularly concerned about young people vaping, considering the human brain doesn’t stop developing until age 25. “We also don’t know what other chemicals are being inhaled,” says Dr Moya Vandeleur, a paediatric respiratory and sleep physician in Melbourne.
“Our fear is that similar to tobacco, these products may in the long-term be associated with oral and lung cancers but because they haven’t been around for as long as tobacco, the long-term data isn’t there.”
Vaping is also highly addictive. One vape can contain thousands of puffs – the equivalent of dozens of packs of cigarettes, but harder to track your intake of. As Sydney psychotherapist Eugenie Pepper notes, “there’s no natural stopping point. People are now sitting there with this device in their hands just constantly puffing.”
The addictive nature of vaping brings with it a host of behavioural problems for young users. Parents and teachers report kids becoming extremely irritable, moody, and depressed when away from their vapes or undergoing withdrawals.
Addiction can also create issues with concentration and be highly disruptive to daily routine. “Some patients tell me they wake up at night and reach for their vape,” reports Dr. Anthea Rhodes, a Melbourne paediatrician.
“Others have told me they are worried about their upcoming year 11 and 12 exams, because they don’t know how they will get through the exam without being able to vape.”
So What’s Being Done?
Currently, Australia has a ban on the import and sale of nicotine vaping products. The only legal way to get your hands on a nicotine vape is with a doctor’s prescription, and it’s illegal to sell any vaping products to under-18s, regardless of nicotine content.
But the vape trade is booming despite this. Importers get around the nicotine bans by simply not listing it in the ingredients – meaning children are often unaware they’re consuming nicotine when they’re vaping. And vape pens are easy to come by, too – you can buy them at many convenience stores or tobacconists, for $5-$30.
The Albanese administration is looking to introduce further vape reforms, with the TGA currently reviewing submissions from a public consultation period. Potential reforms may include a blanket ban on imports of all vapes, plain packaging laws, or a ban on flavoured vapes.
“The former government dropped the ball on vaping,” federal Health Minister Mark Butler told The Guardian, “Our children are paying the price for that division and delay.”
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