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Teens and vaping

There’s a lot of media attention at the moment about the explosion in teen vaping. Much of it sensationalised and misleading.

What is vaping?

Vaping is not the same as smoking. A vape heats up nicotine liquid into a gas that is inhaled. Even though it looks similar, it is not smoke. Vapes can also be used to inhale other liquids with no psychoactive drugs in them, just chemicals and flavours.

Is it legal?

Access to nicotine and vapes is legal for adults wanting to quit smoking. They need a GP prescription.

How dangerous is it?

First thing to know is that vaping is MUCH less harmful than smoking cigarettes. 95% less harmful in fact. So for teens who are smokers or who are risk of smoking, it is much safer. The main risk of vaping is nicotine addiction, but nicotine itself is much less dangerous than the other chemicals in tobacco cigarettes

For teens who don’t smoke or not at risk of smoking, we want to make sure vaping is as inaccessible as possible and that there is good education about the dangers of vaping. We know from other drug education that when teens are given good factual information about drugs, including alcohol, smoking and illicit drugs, they tend to make safer decisions. Unfortunately, because legal vaping is so difficult to access for adults trying to quit cigarettes and huge black market has developed, which means vapes are unregulated and more accessible for kids.

How common is vaping among teens?

Australian government data shows that teen vaping is pretty rare in Australia. And regular teen vaping is even less common. Less than 2 per cent of Australian teens vaped in 2019 and more than 90% had never tried vaping. There are a lot of news reports claiming vaping has increased since then but we have no data to confirm that.

The other thing to keep in mind is that almost all young people who vape regularly are previous smokers. And for others experimenting with vaping, many just try it a few times and do not continue.

Does vaping cause brain damage in teens?

We don’t know the answer to this. The only studies that have been done so far are in rats. Kids can be ratbags sometimes, but they are quite different from rodents. And most of those studies have used super high doses. Much more than kids would typically use.

Does vaping lead to smoking?

One of the big concerns about vaping is that it causes teens to take up smoking. But the gateway theory has been debunked for other drugs. Just because some teens who vape then go on to smoke doesn’t mean vapes cause kids to start smoking. The most likely explanation, as for other drugs, is that the teens who start vaping are likely to take risks generally, and were more likely to take up smoking.

The Aotearoa New Zealand Ministry of Health note: ‘Some people worry that vaping might be a ‘gateway’ to smoking for young people, but there is no clear evidence for this. Smoking among young people is continuing to decline and most young people who vape are smokers or ex-smokers.’