Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on Earth. Associated with cigarettes and the cancer — and other health conditions — they cause, nicotine itself is actually not considered harmful and evidence, although limited, would suggest it may actually be good for us.
Still, the ‘rise of teenage vaping’ has been the latest scare story fuelled by reports of schoolchildren vaping in classrooms and principals having to install vaping detectors in bathrooms.
The big fears here are that vaping is relatively unknown and could be dangerous — although there is yet to be any conclusive evidence of its harms published — and that nicotine addiction will lead to young people taking up tobacco smoking, undoing years of anti-smoking campaigning work.
A new study, published by NSW Health, has thrown another spanner into the already highly convoluted and politicised machinery of whether we should allow people to vape or not.
Data from the most recent NSW Population Health Survey, published today, found that daily smoking rates for the population above the age of 16 have decreased from 9.2% to 8.2% between 2020 and 2021. Although this might not sound like much, smoking rates are notoriously hard to get down, so this is a big win.
On the flip side, however, the rates of young people who vape appear to have doubled in that same time frame. 11% of people aged 16 to 24 now report being current vaping users.
Dr Kerry Chant, NSW Health Chief Health Officer, praised the “amazing progress” of people who have quit cigarettes in NSW, but also fed the fears around vaping.
“There’s strong evidence of a smoking ‘gateway effect’,” Chant said.
“People who vape are three times as likely to go on to smoke tobacco cigarettes than those who don’t vape”.
It’s unclear where these statistics came from, but evidence from the UK and from the US would suggest that in populations where vaping devices are more readily available, smoking rates are dropping much more quickly than they are here.
Vaping, first and foremost, should be considered an anti-smoking aide. Its primary use is to get people who would otherwise be inhaling burning tobacco to use a device that allows for a far safer delivery of nicotine.
While some young people may be taking up the practice who have never smoked, there are a number of factors to consider.
First of all, the incidence of young people taking up vaping is not that high. Although the data appears to have doubled in NSW in the past year, UK data would suggest that the vast, vast majority of people who vape used to smoke cigarettes.
Young people are naturally experimental and curious and it’s difficult to say whether or not the ones who are vaping now would otherwise be using far more harmful cigarettes. Evidence, again from the UK, seems to suggest that the type of kids who take up vaping and then go on to smoke cigarettes are the same who would likely take up cigarettes anyway. This could be down to genetic factors or environmental ones.
Further data — the UK really seems to be doing the heavy lifting here — suggests that vaping rates amongst young people appear to be holding steady in a country where they are much more widely available than Australia. Most young people in this survey report being largely unaware of vaping, unlikely to try it, and believing that it is just as harmful as smoking. Those aged 16-18 are the most likely to try it, however, most of them do so simply because they are curious.
There is also the belief that young people take up vaping because of the fruity flavours and the shiny tubes that the disposable ones are packaged in. The data on this is somewhat mixed, with some studies suggesting that young people simply like fruity flavours more than, say, tobacco flavours, but this could also be true for the general vaping population — which is why the vaping companies sell those products in the first place.
The weirdest thing in this latest study, and the coverage around it, is that researchers and anti-smoking campaigners appear on the one hand to praise the decline in smoking, while simultaneously attacking the very thing that may be causing it.
Vaping is unlikely to cause young people to take up smoking, at least, in no greater numbers than they might already, and, as a smoking-cessation tool, is incredibly useful in getting long-term smokers off the ciggies.