Why is your teen vaping? What every parent should know

Whether it is curiosity, clever marketing, or just wanting to fit in, vaping is on the rise among young people – but how dangerous is it?

Puff bars, e-cigs, vapes, nova, hit whatever your teen calls it, the upshot is the same.

Vaping is not safe for young people, but rising numbers are becoming hooked.

Cancer Council research found that 14 per cent of those aged 12-17 had used an e-cigarette at least once, with some reports the trend has even hit primary schools.

Social media videos depicting e-cigarettes as cool and fun, coupled with attractive flavours such as Skittles, Red Bull and cinnamon roll, are luring more and more teens to try.

While the trend is still relatively new, parents are being urged to arm themselves with information and keep an eye out for signs.

What is vaping?

A vape is an electronic device that comes in different forms and colours, and often resembles pens, highlighters, traditional cigarettes or USB sticks.

The device heats liquids to produce a vapour which is inhaled, according to the Drug and Alcohol Foundation.

Nicotine, nicotine-free e-liquids made from a mixture of solvents, sweeteners, flavourings and other chemicals and drugs, such as cannabis, can be vaped.

Why vaping is risky business for teens

Make no mistake – vaping is very harmful to a person’s health, especially for young people, according to Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change deputy director Dr Michelle Jongenelis.

“We hear a lot of comparisons between vaping and smoking, which is exactly what the vaping industry wants people doing,” Dr Jongenelis says.

“At this point in time, the evidence suggests that vaping is less harmful.

“But how much less, we don’t know yet.

“I often hear parents say ‘Well vaping is better than smoking so what’s the harm?’

“But if you have a child who is not smoking, vaping is not better.

“It is incredibly dangerous.”

Quit director Dr Sarah White says vaping may also be a springboard for teens to take up smoking.

“Recent surveys of teens in New Zealand, where e-cigarettes are widely available, are showing a worrying increase in vaping and a reversing of previously declining teen smoking rates,” Dr White says.

What is in vaping products?

Dr Jongenelis says e-liquids aren’t just water mixed with flavourings, but contain a number of chemicals that can lead to serious lung disease.

Hidden nasties found in e-liquids include chemicals common in paint, and cleaning products, ultrafine particles, which are damaging to lungs, metals such as nickel, tin and lead and carcinogens (which cause cancer).

A lot of e-liquids are also incorrectly labelled, which Dr Jongenelis says is often done on purpose to hide the fact they illegally contain nicotine.

“The brain is still developing well into young adulthood and so nicotine use in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood can affect memory, concentration, learning, self-control, attention and mood,” she says.

Busting misconceptions about vaping

Vapes are often touted as a tool to quit smoking, but the Australian Medical Association says there is limited evidence to support this.

“Vaping is not a risk-free version of smoking,” AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid said in a statement.

“It is addictive, associated with proven harms and if liquid nicotine gets into the hands of young children and is ingested, it is highly toxic and can be fatal in very small amounts.”

Growing evidence is also showing that children who use e-cigarettes are at increased risk of becoming cigarette smokers.

Why vaping is going viral

With more than 7000 sweet and fruity flavours and pretty, fun packaging, vaping is being unabashedly marketed to young people. .

“They are also promoted on youth-oriented platforms such as TikTok, and the advertising is directed at youth too, such as launch parties for new devices,” Dr Jongenelis says.

E-cigarettes are cheaper that traditional tobacco cigarettes, and can be bought in bulk, making them even more enticing to teens.

Are vapes addictive?

“Nicotine is of course very addictive, and a lot of the newer disposable devices are made with nicotine salts,” Dr Jongenelis says.

“This provides a more concentrated hit of nicotine, so a higher nicotine strength, without the harsh throat feeling.

“This means children can inhale very high levels of nicotine more easily and with less irritation, which makes e-cigarettes a lot more palatable and appealing.”

What are the laws around vaping in Australia?

As of October 1, 2021, a doctor’s prescription is required to legally buy vaping products that contain nicotine for the purpose of quitting smoking.

Like tobacco products, it is illegal to advertise or promote e-cigarettes.

It’s still legal to buy and sell e-liquids that don’t contain nicotine.

Tips for parents to guide teens around vaping

  • Educate yourself on the facts about vaping.
  • Learn the lingo, for example, vapes, puff bars, stigs, HQV Cuvies, Juul.
  • Balance your discussion with facts on the health risks, without stoking curiosity, just like you would with smoking or alcohol.
  • Avoid criticism or judgment. Ask your child what made them want to try it, and how did it make them feel?
  • Be on the lookout for devices. They can even be hidden in hoodie drawstrings.

Written by Elissa Doherty.