As Australia cracks down on vaping, there are concerns that without support some young people could turn to cigarettes

As Australia cracks down on vaping, there are concerns that without support some young people could turn to cigarettes
  • PublishedJune 26, 2024

When the cost of living started to bite, Karen turned to vapes for what she saw as a cheaper alternative to smoking.

But as prices skyrocketed following a ban on the importation of disposable vapes and refillable non-therapeutic vapes earlier this year, her relationship with the devices started to change.

While refills for reusable vapes used to cost about $15, Karen says they jumped to $45 within months. At the same time, she was seeing more information about the potential health risks of vaping.

“You see these things on TikTok with people having lung issues,” she says. “That did start to play on my mind, ‘Well, is it actually going to be worse [than cigarettes]?'”

So, she returned to smoking.

New laws introduced by the federal government on Monday will ban the sale of vapes containing nicotine outside of a pharmacy from July 1.

E-cigarettes will be limited to three flavours — mint, menthol or tobacco — and the government claims the concentration of nicotine in them will be limited.

But some health groups are concerned about the potential for product swapping without adequate supports to quit vaping, with a 2023 report by Cancer Victoria finding young people who vaped were three times as likely to take up smoking.

“I sort of feel better smoking a cigarette sometimes,” said 24-year-old Luke Walles.

“You know the bad stuff already, right? Whereas with vapes, you’ve got no idea, it could be anything.”

More evidence needed

New research released this week by the Cancer Council of Australia revealed nearly 1,200 people, aged between 12 and 19, are being introduced to vaping on a weekly basis.

In its 2023 report, Cancer Victoria found this age group had recorded the highest increase in vaping rates in recent years. It also found a rise in the smoking rates of people aged 14 to 17 for the first time in over two decades.

Hester Wilson — Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Addiction Special Interest Group chair — said, with uncertainty around the future of vapes, “there may well be a group of people who are shifting back to cigarettes or are moving to cigarettes for the first time”.

“With the change in legislation, that uncertainty may be making them think, ‘Well, I won’t be able to get it, maybe I’ll move back to smoking or maybe I’ll start smoking’,” she said.

“For me as a GP, my concern is that we have a very addictive substance — nicotine — which people get hooked on, and find really, really difficult to stop.

“We have some good evidence around helping people to stop smoking. However, we don’t really have good evidence around how you stop vaping.”

Since smoking cessation service Quitline first introduced questions about the use of the devices in August 2022, five per cent of callers who reported exclusively vaping were found to be younger than 18 years of age.

Raglan Maddox — an associate professor who leads the Tobacco Free Program at Australian National University — said schools, parents, teachers and principals were grappling with young people taking up vaping, but there wasn’t enough information about how to support them to quit. 

“What happens when they’re going through the withdrawal process? What support is available to help them essentially liberate themselves from nicotine addiction?” he asked.

In a statement, Quitline said product swapping was a “concern”.

“Dual use of tobacco and vapes has been a problem for some time,” the statement said.

“However, with the right service supports in place, and with new national anti-smoking and anti-vaping campaigns … we’re confident young people will see strong reasons to consider quitting nicotine products entirely.”

Exposure to anti-smoking campaigns

Mr Walles said he felt it would be easier to quit cigarettes than vaping.

“When you vape, you can just take one hit, [and] yep, sweet, that’s your nicotine fix,” he said.

“Whereas when you smoke a whole cigarette, I think you feel … kind of groggy afterwards, almost.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Karen, who said “because [vapes] come in 5,000-6,000 puffs”, she found it difficult to “keep track” of how much nicotine she was consuming, compared to smoking.

When it comes to young people’s understanding of the comparative health risks of vaping and smoking, Lung Foundation Australia said one of the key problems was that some young people may not have been exposed to previous tobacco campaigns.

“And all the really fabulous public health efforts that went into driving down smoking rates from traditional tobacco cigarette products,” Paige Preston explained.

“We’ve got so much evidence that tobacco products have killed the vast majority of its users, and there are so many health impacts.

“That does need to get re-shared with young people, but also just making sure we aren’t losing sight of the fact that vapes also are quite harmful products.”

Dr Wilson said she was “very concerned” about the prospect of people moving to use tobacco due to the health risks.

“Two out of three people die of smoking-related illness if they continue to smoke long-term,” she said.

“I particularly don’t want young people taking this up, I don’t want never-smokers taking it up, I really don’t want that happening — I’d much prefer people not use nicotine at all.

“It’s such an interesting space at the moment with the changing legislation and uncertainty, only time will tell what that looks like.”

Mr Walles said the national ban was a step in the right direction.

“Having it … less accessible definitely is a positive thing for stopping young people getting into it,” he said.

“[But] especially with the amount of high schoolers vaping … there’s going to be a big want for these things and I think people are still going to find a way to get them.”


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