This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald Sun on January 15.
Authored by Dr Sandro Demaio
In early December 2022, a 12 year old boy called a Victorian health helpline*. Overwhelmed and in tears, he sought support and advice.
He explained that in his class at school, it was now easier to count the number of children not lured by e-cigarettes, and that he increasingly felt pressure to do the same.
Upset and feeling trapped, he didn’t want to succumb to the enormous push by the e-cigarette industry, mainly through his social media channels, to take up this highly addictive and harmful habit.
Sobbing, he also explained he desperately sought to avoid disappointing his parents.
No child in Australia should be put in this position. Nor should we for a moment think that the issue falls with the individual young person, their parents or our teachers.
This is the dangerous outcome purposefully shaped by the e-cigarette industry, intent on putting profits above all else, including the health of young people.
An industry resolute on getting an entirely new generation addicted to nicotine.
In just the last three years, Australia has seen a tidal wave of cheap and highly addictive e-cigarettes cross our borders and flood our communities. Avoiding the weak protections and regulations in place to protect public health, millions of these products have found their way into our schools and into the hands of young adults – and even children.
E-cigarettes can contain as many as 200 toxic chemicals, often undisclosed, including chemicals such as formaldehyde and heavy metals, known to be associated with cancer and brain damage.
With every puff, these dangerous chemicals are delivered deep into the developing lungs of a young person. They also linger in the environment around the young person, with second-hand inhalation increasingly associated with asthma, bronchitis and inflammation of the lung tissue.
Vaping products come in flavours like ‘cookies and cream’ or ‘strawberry kisses’. A single disposable product can contain as much nicotine as 50traditional cigarettes and cost as little as $5
The result? Young adults aged 18-24 are now the single largest user group of e-cigarettes, and a recent survey showed that 80% of New South Wales teenagers who have vaped found it “easy” to access e-cigarettes from multiple illegal sources, and that flavour was the main factor driving product choice.
Evidence also suggests those who use e-cigarettes are up to three times more likely to go on to smoke combustible, traditional cigarettes. A product that is known to kill two in three of its long-term users.
Now the tobacco and e-cigarette industry wants you to think that the proverbial horse has bolted, that it is too late for proper protections, and we should just open the floodgates further.
This is the outcome the industry has been planning for, in the hope that they will be left to fully profiteer from their latest poisonous ploy.
But now is not the time for hesitancy or further complacency, now is the time for urgent government action.
On Monday, the Australian Government will close its national consultation into what actions are required to protect communities and young people from the harms of e-cigarettes. A process of calling for input, expertise and evidence, this consultation heralds a hopeful step towards taking comprehensive action.
Something health experts and doctors across the country have been calling for, and welcome strongly.
Governments must step up and protect teenagers and young adults in Australia from these highly addictive and toxic products. To achieve this, four actions are required.
First, we must stop the deluge of e-cigarette products across our borders and block their importation.
Stopping the flood of cheap, addictive and dangerous imports must be the top priority for government, while ensuring the small minority who are using e-cigarettes to quit combustible tobacco products are able to continue to access these devices with a valid prescription from their GP.
Second, is to end the sale and supply of these products through protections at the national level. The only exception being the sale by pharmacies to smokers looking to quit combustible cigarettes, and with a valid prescription.
This includes e-cigarettes that do not declare nicotine as an ingredient. In fact, a recent audit of products in WA found that up to 7 in 10 products circumvented current laws by simply not declaring the high quantities of nicotine contained in the vape.
Third, we must update our now decade-old protections around the marketing and promotion of these products, and tobacco more broadly. These laws were world-class 10 years ago; a time before social media and devious dark marketing tactics.
No child should have their phone and personal data weaponised against them, to push an addictive product and derive profit for an industry at the cost of that child’s health and development. These loopholes must be closed.
Finally, we must support those already addicted to e-cigarettes – including the classmates and friends of our young helpline caller.
More needs to be done to support schools, teachers, parents and young people themselves who are now struggling with addiction to nicotine. Health promotion campaigns, support services and tailored information is vital.
For the sake of Australia’s young people, 2023 must be the year that the Australian Government implements effective protections when it comes to e-cigarettes.
We have no time to waste.
* The individual’s details from this encounter have been changed to protect their identity.