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Mum finds 16 vapes in teen's bedroom: The terrifying reality of nicotine in schools

Although many vapes are marketed as not containing nicotine, the vast majority actually do, and they're taking over the schoolyard.

In the schoolyard, vaping is the new smoking. This is hardly big news if you’re a parent or caregiver of primary or high school-aged kids. Parents across the country are finding vapes in pencil cases, school bags, under beds, and in bedside drawers. It’s a real worry.

My friend Lisele was horrified to discover 16 vapes in her 16-year-old daughter’s bedroom when she tidied up her room. If each 50-gram vape contains a minimum of 250 puffs, that’s 4000 puffs of God knows what going straight into her healthy, young lungs. So, no wonder, in May last year, Federal Health Minister Mark Butler said vaping has become “the number one behavioural issue in high schools”.

Three teenagers stand on stairs holding vapes.
Vapes are increasingly popular with teenagers. Source: Getty

It’s not just teenagers. Vaping is insidiously finding its way into primary schools. Research from the George Institute for Global Health Australia found more than a third of Australian primary school teachers and staff say some of their students vape. "Our study shows some concerning trends in e-cigarette use in Australian schools – particularly primary schools – that need to be nipped in the bud to prevent future harm," said Professor Simone Pettigrew, one of the study's authors.

However, it’s not hard to see the appeal to kids when vapes or e-cigarettes, as we should all factually call them, are designed to look like highlighter pens and have names such as Candy King, Cookie Crunch with Cornflakes, and Slush Puppy. Add to that they taste like chocolate milk, fruit loops, lemonade, strawberry kisses, and even unicorn poo, and you’ve found your market.

Colourful vapes on a pink background.
How vapes look is clearly designed to appeal to teenagers. Source: Getty

While some young people may think vapes are cool, on the other hand, smoking cigarettes is officially cooked. The daily smoking of cigarettes is down to 1.9 per cent for 15 to 17-year-olds. Yet research from the Generation Vape, a survey from the Cancer Council NSW in partnership with the Daffodil Centre and the University of Sydney, found the use of e-cigarettes is even higher among high school students than adults. Among the teens surveyed, 32 per cent had vaped at least a few puffs. Of these, more than half (54 per cent) had never previously smoked.

If you are a parent who thought when reading your child’s confiscated vape, at least it doesn’t contain nicotine, then think again. Even though many are marketed as not containing nicotine, the vast majority of vapes actually do contain at least some amount of the chemical. This means that worryingly, a growing number of teenagers are readily accessing and using illegal, flavoured, disposable vaping products that contain nicotine.

Those who vape have a five times greater chance of smoking

According to Emeritus Professor in Public Health Simon Chapman, if you start by vaping, you have a five times greater chance to go on to smoke than if you've never vaped. "With the rise in vaping, more teenagers are now using nicotine than we have seen for many years," he said

While it's been illegal to sell any vape containing nicotine since mid-2020, Professor Chapman points out that many vapes sold in convenience stores, by tobacconists and advertised online are unlawful commerce. "That means there a lot more people are nicotine-addicted, whether it's from cigarettes or vaping," he said.

A young girl in a pink top holds up a selection of colourful vapes.
Many vapes come in eye-catching colours and look like highlighter pens. Source: Getty

No nicotene labels are 'complete nonsense', scientist says

Dr Celine Kelso, a researcher in the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences at the University of Wollongong (UOW) conducted a study of the chemical contents of e-cigarettes. “Although disposable vapes do not have a listed nicotine concentration, our study of over 100 donated samples has found that all e-liquid solutions within these disposable vapes contained, on average, four to five per cent nicotine. We are yet to analyse a disposable device that did not contain any nicotine.”

So how can this happen? "Suppliers arrange with the people producing them in China to put on the pack the product does not contain nicotine, but it's complete nonsense," said Professor Chapman.

Youngsters breathing in 'cocktail of chemicals and nicotine'

Another major concern of Professor Chapman’s is chemical flavouring agents. "If a young person bought a mango vape, they’d probably imagine real juice from a great vat of mangoes, in the vape," he said.

"However, what they're pulling down into their lungs are a cocktail of flavouring agents, chemicals and nicotine, but also propylene glycol, which is the liquid that contains the nicotine."

Young woman blows smoke out of her nose and mouth.
Once teens try vaping they are much more likely to smoke later in life. Source: Getty

After the Wild West years of the e-cigarette industry, the federal government is clamping down hard on recreational vaping, which, if the bill is passed, will see the importation of non-pharmaceutical vapes outlawed and tight restrictions on the flavours and packaging of the products. Legislation is expected to be tabled in parliament by the end of the year.

Professor Chapman is all for it. "If young people don’t vape or smoke before they are 21, they are much less likely to as adults. We need to put in policies that dampen or inhibit their access and then hope that a lot of them don't go on to become permanent smokers."

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