Big Tobacco ‘hooking kids through vaping’

3 minute read

The contents of e-cigarettes remain largely unregulated and mysterious, and schools are full of them, public health experts warn.

Vaping is being used to recruit the next generation of tobacco company customers with a “well thought-out campaign to get kids addicted to nicotine”, Australian public health experts say, and it’s happening in school bathrooms nationwide. 

Professor Terry Slevin, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, told TMR that anecdotal reports of a significant rise in vaping in schools indicated an increasing problem. 

“This is a 21st-century manifestation of a 20th-century problem,” Professor Slevin said. “Just like with cigarettes, they are making vaping cool and attractive to kids using flavourings. This is a deliberate strategy and the industry is paying people to prosecute its case.” 

Since October 2021, it has been illegal for Australians to import nicotine vaping products from overseas websites or from Australian pharmacies without a valid prescription from a local doctor. 

But the contents of vaping liquids remain an unregulated mystery.  

Research published in the Medical Journal of Australia in October 2021 found that “Australian e-liquids include potentially toxic chemicals, for many of which no information on inhalation health effects are available”. 

“Despite the sale of nicotine-containing e-liquids without prescription being illegal, trace amounts were detected in some samples, with implications for their effects on health and addiction,” concluded the authors. 

Professor Slevin said he had no doubt nicotine was finding its way into the lungs of young vapers. 

“The predatory tactics of e-cigarette companies, including Big Tobacco, has resulted in a surge in children vaping and parents should be alarmed. 

“We need both state and federal governments to take action now to protect children from harm – including nicotine addiction, dangerous chemicals and life-threatening accidents. Australia is a world leader in tobacco control, but to continue this legacy we need to ensure that e-cigarettes aren’t being passed around the playground.” 

Health Minister Mark Butler told ABC radio last week that e-cigarettes were “often marketed with pink unicorns on them and bubblegum flavour – these aren’t being marketed to adults, these are directly targeted to kids – and I’m determined to stamp that out”.

He said he had heard from school principals via state education ministers that vaping was now the “number one behavioural issue in their schools”.  

Associate Professor Deana Leahy, from the School of Education, Culture and Society at Monash University, told TMR that in some ways vaping was filling a vacuum left by the “demonisation” of tobacco smoking. 

“If you’re a traditional cigarette smoker, that seems to be problematic, so that practice has been demonised. With vaping, it’s a very different set of social norms,” Professor Leahy said. 

She said parents and teachers required support to educate their children about vaping.  

“QUIT and VicHealth are currently working on a resource hub to support parents and teachers to discuss vaping with their teens. Here at Monash, we are working to embed the topic in our teacher education programs. Among other initiatives we need to be offering more support and funding to schools and teachers to be able to deliver quality health education.” 

Schools and teachers were already overburdened with issues of health education, including mental health and suicide prevention, she said. 

“As a subject, health education should ideally be connected with other curriculum areas such as science, English, media and humanities to help students fully understand e-cigarettes and the harms associated with them,” she said.  

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