September 5, 2022

Clearing the air - Vaping and young people

Vaping equipment

You may have heard a lot recently about young people in Australia vaping.

But what’s really going on?

Information on vaping can be confusing. And the lack of distinction between ‘nicotine’ and ‘nicotine-free’ e-cigarettes (vapes), makes it challenging to understand the risks.

So here we break down what vaping is, why it may be appealing to young people, and some of the risks we know about.

What is vaping?

Vaping is the use of electronic devices (e-cigarettes, vapes) to heat liquids and produce a vapor, which is then inhaled – mimicking the act of smoking.

Vapes are battery powered, hand-held devices that use cartridges filled with liquid (‘juice’) that can contain:

  • nicotine
  • flavourings
  • other substances (e.g cannabis).1

Vaping devices have changed in shape, size, and style since their introduction in 2003. Current vaping devices are smaller, often resembling USB sticks.

Vapes can be modified to produce a more harmful level of nicotine.

Larger batteries in some vapes allow for e-liquids to be heated to higher temperatures, producing more toxic chemicals.2, 3

Can vaping help me quit smoking?

You might have heard that people can use vaping to reduce or quit smoking – but, there’s currently not enough evidence to support these claims.

Australia’s Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) has not approved vapes or e-liquids as a smoking cessation tool.4

Is vaping legal in Australia?

  • Nicotine-free vapes and e-liquids can be sold and purchased legally in most states and territories through online and tobacco retail stores.
  • The commercial sale of e-cigarettes and e-liquid containing nicotine is illegal.
  • It’s also illegal to buy e-cigarettes or e-liquid that contain nicotine online without a medical prescription.5

Often, vapes and e-liquids in Australia aren’t labelled properly with their ingredients or nicotine contents. So far, producers of vapes have faced limited legal consequences. The market for vapes is mostly online, making regulating these products difficult.

This means you can’t always be sure what’s in vaping products.

Why do young people vape?

Australian surveys show that vaping among young people has increased. However, the rate of cigarette smoking amongst young people continues to decline 5, 6

In 2021:

  • 7.6% of young people aged between 15-17 had ever tried an e-cigarette or vape – just under one in twelve.
  • 21.7% of young people aged between 18-24 had ever tried an e-cigarette or vape – just over one in five.7

Adolescence is marked by rapid changes and experimentation from about 10 years of age into early adulthood. These stages of development are important and normal for young people who are developing a sense of identity, independence, values, and social networks.8

This ongoing development may also increase risk taking, including vaping.

We also know that:

  • Of young adults aged between 18-24 who tried vaping, the majority (73%) said they did so out of curiosity.6
  • Students aged between 12-17 who had vaped reported they last used from a friend’s device (63%).5

What makes vaping appealing to young people?

Advertising and promoting vaping products is illegal in Australia, but companies are using other tactics to target young people.

Companies are creating flavours such as candy, mango, peppermint, and vanilla to entice young people and normalise vaping as a fun recreational activity.

These flavours smell and taste more appealing than cigarettes. But, companies are often not telling people about the health risks.9-12

Social media and online channels also have an important role to play as an information and exposure source for young people.

Young people may also be drawn to vaping because devices are brightly coloured, small and easy to hide.

And, they’re often easier to get hold of and more affordable than cigarettes.

All of this makes vaping more attractive to young people and creates the wrong impression that they’re relatively harmless.13

What are the harms of vaping for young people?

For young people, starting vaping early can be risky.

For non-smokers, vaping may worsen asthma, bronchitis, and cough.

Vaping has had reported side effects like nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and mouth and airway irritation.14, 15

And, nicotine exposure during teenage years can harm brain development and impact learning, memory, and attention.15

The fact is, we’re yet to understand the full impact of vaping.

The research into the long-term health effects is in its early stages and limited. The rising popularity of vaping is moving much faster than the time required to conduct good research.16

We didn’t know the long-term effects of smoking cigarettes for decades. So, conclusions about vaping can’t be made without quality long-term research.

What we do know is that vaping any substance carries risk.

  • Nicotine-free e-liquids still contain a mix of unregulated chemicals and additives that could cause harm.
  • ‘Nicotine-free’ labelled e-liquids can still carry nicotine.

Both nicotine and nicotine-free e-liquids also contain other chemicals, additives, and flavourings that are potentially harmful, such as chemicals found in common paint, cleaning, and disinfectant products, and certain cancer-causing agents.17-19

We know that disengagement from school can be a risk factor for health and social harms. This can impact a young person’s mental health, substance use, social support and more. This is important to consider if the response to vaping in schools is expulsion or suspension.20

What about nicotine e-cigarettes and e-liquid?

Nicotine on its own is still a toxic substance and regular vaping can lead to dependence for young people.21 There’s also a risk that vaping re-normalises the use of nicotine,22 after rates of smoking have been steadily going down over the last few decades.

There’s some concern that modified vapes can deliver more nicotine than cigarettes.2

Replacing smoking cigarettes with vaping may be less harmful because of the chemicals and cancer-causing agents found in tobacco. However, we still don’t know this for sure, because of the limited research available.13, 23, 24

Recent outbreaks of lung disease and deaths related to vaping in the United States point to a potential link between vaping and harm to lungs.25

You may want to talk to a young person in your life who is vaping.

Here’s some suggestions to help you talk it through with them.1

  • Stick to the facts. Our Vaping Mini Bulletin might help. 
    Start with the facts and consider what you want to say, questions you want to ask, and how you want to respond.
  • Think about the environment.
    Choose your timing carefully and keep you conversation relaxed. Going for a walk, watching TV or driving are great opportunities for talking with your young person about important issues.
  • Be curious and open. 
    Be curious about what’s going on for your young person and talk about it. Going through their personal belongings can undermine trust and disrupt your relationship.
  • Avoid assumption and judgement.
    Talk to your young person with respect and be conscious of your tone and body language. If they have tried vaping, explore what they liked and didn’t like about it, ask them questions such as ‘’what made you want to try?’’ and ‘’how did it make you feel?’’
  • Steer clear of exaggerated phrases. 
    Be honest about the potential harms, but avoid exaggerated phrases such as ‘’vaping is worse than smoking cigarettes’’ or ‘’vaping will kill you’’.
  • Remind them that you care about them.
    If they are vaping nicotine, you can say you are concerned about the evidence this can have on adolescent brain development.
  1. Cao DJ, Aldy K, Hsu S, McGetrick M, Verbeck G, De Silva I, et al. Review of Health Consequences of Electronic Cigarettes and the Outbreak of Electronic Cigarette, or Vaping, Product Use-Associated Lung Injury. Journal of Medical Toxicology [Internet]. 2020 12.08.2022]; 16(3):[295-310 pp.].
  2. Pepper JK, MacMonegle AJ, Nonnemaker JM. Adolescents’ Use of Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced Device Types for Vaping. Nicotine & Tobacco Research [Internet]. 2019 12.08.2022]; 21(1):[55-62 pp.].
  3. Yingst JM, Foulds J, Veldheer S, Hrabovsky S, Trushin N, Eissenberg TT, et al. Nicotine absorption during electronic cigarette use among regular users. PLOS ONE [Internet]. 2019 12.08.2022]; 14(7):[e0220300 p.].
  4. Therapeutic Goods Administration. About e-cigarettes  [11.08.2022].
  5. Guerin N, White V. ASSAD 2017 Statistics & Trends: Australian Secondary Students’ Use of Tobacco, Alcohol, Over-the-counter Drugs, and Illicit Substances. Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer: Cancer Council Victoria; 2018.
  6. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019 2020 [11.08.2022].
  7. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Smoking: Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2022 [05.08.2022].
  8. Sanci L, Webb M, Hocking J.Risk-taking behaviour in adolescents. Australian Journal for General Practitioners [Internet]. 2018 11/23 12.08.2022]; 47:[829-34 pp.].
  9. Erku DA, Morphett K, Steadman KJ, Gartner CE. Policy Debates Regarding Nicotine Vaping Products in Australia: A Qualitative Analysis of Submissions to a Government Inquiry from Health and Medical Organisations. Int J Environ Res Public Health [Internet]. 2019 12.08.2022]; 16(22):[4555 p.].
  10. Pepper JK, Ribisl KM, Brewer NT. Adolescents interest in trying flavoured e-cigarettes. Tobacco Control [Internet]. 2016 12.08.2022]; 25(Suppl 2):[ii62 p.].
  11. Vasiljevic M, Petrescu DC, Marteau TM. Impact of advertisements promoting candy-like flavoured e-cigarettes on appeal of tobacco smoking among children: an experimental study. Tobacco Control [Internet]. 2016 12.08.2022]; 25(e2):[e107 p.].
  12. Goldenson NI, Kirkpatrick MG, Barrington-Trimis JL, Pang RD, McBeth JF, Pentz MA, et al. Effects of sweet flavorings and nicotine on the appeal and sensory properties of e-cigarettes among young adult vapers: Application of a novel methodology. Drug Alcohol Depend [Internet]. 2016 12.08.2022]; 168:[176-80 pp.].
  13. National Academies of Sciences E, Medicine, Health. Public Health Consequences of E-Cigarettes. In: Eaton DL, Kwan LY, Stratton K, editors. Public Health Consequences of E-Cigarettes. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2018.
  14. NSW Health. Vaping - Frequently asked questions: NSW Health; 2022 [11.08.22].
  15. Gotts JE, Jordt SE, McConnell R, Tarran R. What are the respiratory effects of e-cigarettes? Bmj [Internet]. 2019 12.08.2022]; 366:[l5275 p.]. Available from:
  16. Pisinger C, Døssing M.A systematic review of health effects of electronic cigarettes. Preventive Medicine [Internet]. 2014 12.08.2022]; 69:[248-60 pp.].
  17. Chivers E, Janka M, Franklin P, Mullins B, Larcombe A. Nicotine and other potentially harmful compounds in “nicotine-free” e-cigarette liquids in Australia. Med J Aust [Internet]. 2019 12.08.2022]; 210:[127-8 pp.].
  18. Cox S, Leigh NJ, Vanderbush TS, Choo E, Goniewicz ML, Dawkins L. An exploration into “do-it-yourself” (DIY) e-liquid mixing: Users' motivations, practices and product laboratory analysis. Addictive Behaviors Reports [Internet]. 2019 12.08.2022]; 9.
  19. Office on Smoking and Health. About Electronic Cigarettes (E-Cigarettes): The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;  [updated 21 March 202212.08.2022].

20. Loxley WM, Toumbourou JW, Stockwell TR, Haines B, Scott K, Godfrey C, et al. The prevention of substance use, risk and harm in Australia - a review of the evidence2004 31 Aug 22].

21. Greenhalgh E, Scollo M, Winstanley M. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne, Victoria: Cancer Council Victoria [Internet]. 2020 12.08.2022].

22. Stanwick R, Society PpotCP. E-cigarettes: Are we renormalizing public smoking? Reversing five decades of tobacco control and revitalizing nicotine dependency in children and youth in Canada. Paediatrics & child health [Internet]. 2015 12.08.2022]; 20(2):[101-5 pp.].

23. Glasser AM, Collins L, Pearson JL, Abudayyeh H, Niaura RS, Abrams DB, et al. Overview of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine [Internet]. 2017 12.08.2022]; 52(2):[e33-e66 pp.].

24. St Helen G, Liakoni E, Nardone N, Addo N, Jacob P, 3rd, Benowitz NL. Comparison of Systemic Exposure to Toxic and/or Carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) during Vaping, Smoking, and Abstention. Cancer Prev Res (Phila) [Internet]. 2020 12.08.2022]; 13(2):[153-62 pp.].

25. CDC. Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020 [12.08.2022].

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