South-west children as young as 12 are vaping, with the growing trend hooking a whole new generation of young adults and teens into smoking.
Western Region Alcohol and Drug Centre has seen a spike in the number of referrals to its services for secondary students caught using e-cigarettes at school.
WRAD youth outreach clinician Harriet Rose said she had student referrals from the city's three main secondary colleges. "I think it was masked because of COVID-19 and remote learning and then once school's came back it was full-on - in term four and then this year it's been non-stop," Ms Rose said.
"If they've been caught at school, part of the thing is they'll have a session with me. I'll talk to the students and the parents to educate them and help the students make informed decisions and make them aware of harm reduction and harm minimisation.
"We have a discussion about it and their reasons why. It might be curiosity, or 'my friends are doing it' or it could be 'I'm stressed and I find it helpful' then we have a talk about stress management and what else have you got in your bag of tricks that is helpful for that."
She said in 15 per cent of her total client referrals over the past 12 months, their substance of concern was e-cigarettes, and most were aged 13 to 15. "It's kind of trendy and just really accessible at the moment," Ms Rose said.
"Anecdotally they're getting it from older kids, buying it from the internet and getting it from adults.
"The kids have a really broad understanding. Some know very little and some know quite a lot. Some students have taught me about it, that's the scary thing."
She said if students were caught dealing or selling, the schools would get the Victoria Police youth resource officers to visit and have a chat with them "because there's the legal aspect of it too".
Ms Rose said Brophy's Drug and Alcohol Responding Early (DARE) had a new early intervention program for young people which is due to start next term.
"Instead of seeing students one-on-one, there might be more of a group thing. I guess that shows how much of an issue it is if they've developed a whole new program."
Quit Victoria director Sarah White said new Australian Bureau of Statistics data released this week failed to highlight the "very concerning trends" around the increased number of teenagers vaping.
E-cigarettes, also known as vapes, are battery operated devices that work by heating a liquid, or 'juice', until it becomes an aerosol that users inhale. It is commonly called vaping.
E-cigarettes pose serious health risks to teens. Australian surveys have shown e-cigarette use among teens and young adults has increased over the past few years.
Dr White said an increasing number of e-cigarette users went on to become smokers, who wouldn't have otherwise. "It absolutely has the potential to undo decades of progress here (at Quit). We really are risking hooking a whole new generation of young adults and teens into smoking," she said.
We really are risking hooking a whole new generation of young adults and teens into smoking.- Dr Sarah White
"Internationally there's close to two dozen surveys that show kids that vape are on average three to five times more likely to go onto smoke. They're addicted. It's a massive problem."
E-cigarettes can contain nicotine, propylene glycol or glycerine, and flavourings. Other substances found in e-cigarettes include formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein, which are known to cause cancer, while some of the chemicals in e-cigarette aerosols can cause DNA damage.
Dr White said Quit had received calls from primary school principals. It launched an e-cigarette resource in July 2021 in response to growing parent and teacher inquiries about products, what they contain and the health impacts.
The ABS report showed just under one-in-twelve (7.6 per cent) people aged 15-17 had used an e-cigarette or vaping device at least once. "We think it's very much underestimating the actual usage by 15 to 17-year-olds," she said.
Meanwhile, just over one-in-five people aged 18-24 years had used an e-cigarette or vaping device at least once which she said was "a really big concern and are higher than the number who are trying smoking."
Dr White said there were no quality or safety standards meaning the manufacture, contents and labelling of e-cigarettes were unregulated.
It's illegal for a retailer to sell any e-cigarette device or liquid, whether it contains nicotine or not, to a person under 18 years. Nicotine vapes cannot be purchased by anyone without a prescription.
"People have this view that because it's likely to not be as harmful as smoking, it's okay, but it's not. People are inhaling a chemical cocktail into their lungs over and over and over. They are getting addicted to nicotine.
"It's not: 'At least they're vaping, they're not smoking'. Kids were not doing either until e-cigarettes came along," Dr White said.
"There's good data showing that these devices shed heavy metals from the internal mechanism, quite apart from what's in the juice. It's really, incredibly concerning because we know if you start vaping, you're more likely to go onto smoking because you've become addicted to nicotine."
She said e-cigarettes appealed to teens who thought it was cool and who wanted to try the assorted flavours such as peach, popcorn and bubble gum.
"We know tobacco companies are behind this," Dr White said.
"We know that they're paying influencers on social media which is reaching teens and young adults. I wish there was a way we could help people understand they're being targeted by industries that are looking for profits and the risks are pretty serious."
She said despite claims e-cigarettes were nicotine free, it was "absolutely safe to assume there was nicotine in them", with a New South Wales Department of Health test finding seven out of 10 'nicotine-free' products, contained nicotine.
"The tobacco industry is now well and truly invested in e-cigarettes. It's out very deliberately to get a whole new generation of kids addicted to nicotine because they're losing their customers in Australia. This is their attempt to get the customers back," Dr White said.
Warrnambool's D&R Vape owner Ryan Oakley said it would never sell to a minor and always checked customer identification.
"It's something we've been on top of," Mr Oakley said. "The Warrnambool council sends in minors at least twice a year to our shop and we pass the test every time."
He said 90 per cent of its clientele, which ranged in age from 20-70 years, were using e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking and were looking to quit.
"The first question we ask is 'Are you smoking at the moment? Are you looking to give up smoking?' I've had so many people between that 18 to 20 age range who come in and say 'I've never smoked I just want to vape' and I've said 'What are you doing? Just go and get a hobby'. There's been times that I haven't sold to people that are over 18.
"The whole problem is the whole industry gets swiped with the same stuff that's happening illegally and that is a concern for us.
"People say vaping is targeted to minors which I don't think is the case. The issue is illicit sales and normally that's not from vape stores."
Emmanuel College principal Peter Morgan addressed vaping in its newsletter this week, stating Australian research showed young people vaping had increased.
"We know that young people who vape nicotine are exposed to a toxic chemical that can harm adolescent brain development and lead to dependence, while vaping has been found to increase the incidence of depression and anxiety in young people," Mr Morgan said.
A recent college survey, with a 70 per cent response rate, "confirms the current popularity of vaping but also indicates a less frequent occurrence among our students than anecdotal accounts would suggest."
He said it was a community health and wellbeing issue, and results would help target approaches such as education, harm minimisation and supervision.
- Have good communication lines and talk about the risks of smoking and vaping and its long-term effect on lung health.
- Be aware some e-cigarettes are designed to be easily hidden. They're small and can look like highlighters.
- Be aware of sweet smelling, unexpected scents in kids rooms as e-cigarettes can be used without blowing out aerosol plumes.
- If your child is irritable after 45 minutes without time to vape, they're exhibiting signs of nicotine addiction. Worried parents can call the Quitline.
- Anyone selling an e-cigarette containing nicotine, outside of a prescription and a pharmacy is breaking the law.
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