Vaping in high school kids leaps from 13% to 30%

7 minute read

Of those who hadn’t touched a tobacco cigarette before vaping, 20% went on to give the coffin nails a go.

Data from the 2022/23 Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug survey shows 30% of Australian secondary school students have vaped in their lifetime, with 15% reporting regular vaping (20 days or more in the past month) and 3% saying they’d vaped daily in the past month.  

The survey showed vaping prevalence was significantly higher among older students, with 43% of students aged 16-17 years reporting vaping in their lifetime compared to 24% students aged 12-15 years.      

Female students were also more likely than male students to have tried vaping and formed a regular habit, with 35% of girls reporting vaping at least once in their lifetime and 20% vaping in the past month compared to 25% and 12% respectively among boys.  

Worryingly, of students who had ever tried vaping, more than two-thirds reported having never smoked a tobacco cigarette before their first vape, while one in five who had never smoked prior to trying an e-cigarette reported subsequently smoking tobacco cigarettes. 

Geraldine Mellet, co-CEO of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health, told Health Services Daily the findings demanded “immediate action” from the government targeting vaping and smoking among secondary school students, with many newly announced reforms yet to be ratified with legislation. 

“ACOSH is concerned but not surprised by these findings which confirm what we’ve been hearing anecdotally and what’s been demonstrated by other research such as the Generation Vape study,” Ms Mellet said. 

“While the government has announced strong measures to counteract this, most of the reforms still need to go through parliament, so nothing is guaranteed.” 

Although the survey’s findings indicated that recent reforms such as banning single-use vapes would contribute to reducing adolescent vaping and smoking rates, Ms Mellet said stronger measures were needed to restrict the marketing and selling of e-cigarettes to young people.  

“The study shows how justified the government was in banning single-use vapes as the first of their planned changes, given the ASSAD results confirms they’re the vape of choice for 80% of the children surveyed,” she said. 

“The second step will be both stopping every type of vape, not just disposables, from coming into the country without a prescription, [and] stopping the sale of vapes from vape shops or tobacconists so that the reported 41% of children who bought their last vape there will no longer be able to do so. 

“Access is the biggest issue for children and teens, and the industry has made sure to provide them with endless choices that are well concealed.” 

According to Anita Dessaix, chair of the Cancer Council’s Public Health Committee, the extensive scale of the reforms and previous history of tobacco control legislation meant that it would likely be months before any significant changes to vaping and smoking outcomes would be observed.  

“If we look at lessons learned in our experiences with tobacco control, it did take a number of months, between when those policy measures were introduced, and when they were essentially enforced, and where we did see a really big change,” Ms Dessaix said. 

“I do need to flag that we are also awaiting further policy measures and vaping reforms to be introduced hopefully around March-April this year, which will start to deal with product ingredients, packaging flavours. We know that those are important variables that essentially make the product attractive for young people to use. 

“It’s going to take a combination of all of those policy changes to make an impact, and we’ll hopefully start to see a sign of change within the next 12 months.” 

In addition to cutting down vaping prevalence through stringent policy, Ms Dessaix and Ms Mellet both agreed that raising awareness around quitting support services targeted at children and adolescents should also be priorities for state and federal governments. 

“Once we have Australian governments enforcing with strong compliance efforts, we can have greater confidence that we can take important next steps, and that’s about making sure for those young people who are experiencing severe nicotine addiction are in touch with a health professional, that they’re getting the support that they need to quit nicotine addiction,” Ms Dessaix said. 

“Most of the government reforms are about stopping children’s access to vapes, but they also realise that more needs to be done to help those already addicted, to quit,” Ms Mellet added.  

“They’ve put substantial funds into boosting Quitline services and parents or teens themselves should take up that invitation to have an anonymous chat and get advice from trusted and empathetic experts.” 

With regards to trends in vaping prevalence over the last two decades, rates of students reporting vaping were significantly higher in 2022-23 than in recent years, with 13% of students in 2014 and 14% in 2017 reporting ever vaping compared to 30% in 2022-23. 

Past month vaping was also significantly higher than previous years, with 16% of students in 2022-23 reporting vaping in the past month versus 3% in 2014 and 4% in 2017, while the proportion of students reporting ever smoking or vaping increased from 8% in 2014 and 2017 to 12% in 2022-23. 

Sixteen percent of students reported either vaping and/or smoking in the past month in 2022-23, including 13% who had exclusively vaped, 3% who had smoked cigarettes and used a vape and less than 1% who had exclusively smoked 

Fifteen percent of the never-vapers were categorised as being susceptible to vaping, with 21% of female students identified as susceptible compared to 11% of male students, whereas no significant differences were observed between age groups. 

Among students who were current smokers, more than half said they’d had their last cigarette given to them by a friend, while 27% went on to specify that their friend was under 18 years of age.  

Close to two-thirds of students who had vaped in the past month believed that the e-cigarettes or e-liquids they currently use contained nicotine, 8% were unsure about the nicotine content and 5% believed none contained nicotine.   

While 65% of students surveyed who had vaped in the past month believed they would not find it difficult to quit vaping, around one-third believed they would experience at least some difficulty, with 11% saying they’d find it very difficult and 3% saying quitting would be impossible. 

The 2022/23 Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug survey is the largest national survey of adolescent substance use in Australia among secondary school students aged 12 to 17 across all states and territories. 

In November last year, the NHMRC issued an updated CEO statement on e‐cigarettes in light of “new and emerging evidence” and growing concern from health professionals regarding the sharp rise in e-cigarette use among young people. 

Designed to guide state and federal regulation on e-cigarette use, the updated statement highlighted a number of key harms related to vaping, including:

  • E‐cigarette‐related poisonings have substantially increased over the past five years. E‐cigarette‐related calls to Australian Poisons Information Centres have more than doubled between 2020 and 2021. 
  • People who have never smoked may be more likely to take up tobacco smoking if they use e‐cigarettes. 
  • Adolescents are more likely to try e‐cigarettes if they are exposed to e‐cigarettes on social media. 
  • Short term e‐cigarette use may benefit smokers if they are able to quit smoking and have been previously unsuccessful with other smoking cessation aids. 

The updated statement addressed the harms related to e‐cigarette use for all users, including e-cigarette‐related poisonings over the past five years, with e‐cigarette‐related calls to Australian Poisons Information Centres more than doubling between 2020 and 2021. 

The full findings for the ASSAD survey are available here

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