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Blog 17: How to talk to young people about e-cigarettes

17 Oct 2023
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Healthy persuasion

Use of e-cigarettes among young people, including school age children, has increased dramatically.  

While the Federal Government recently committed to strengthening the regulation of e-cigarettes at the national level, much still needs to be done to prevent vaping among young people and to support those already vaping to quit.  

Late last year, ACT Health commissioned Common Cause Australia to run focus groups with 14–24-year-olds to better understand what attracts and deters them from vaping and to test messaging that could be used in prevention campaigns and school curriculum materials.  

The research found vaping had become normalised among young people, with e-cigarette use seen as relatively clean, easy and safe – especially in comparison to cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs.  

Vaping has gone from a niche activity associated with limited social groups, to one that’s now broadly socially acceptable. Vaping is everywhere young people socialise – from bars and night clubs to school classrooms and even toilets.  

So how do we reverse this trend and prevent the vaping industry hooking more young people on their products? 

In its focus groups for ACT Health, Common Cause Australia tested a variety of messages targeted at young people – including existing campaign materials from Australia and overseas.  

Here are some of the top message recommendations:

1 – Highlight the toxins in e-cigarettes 

Many young people severely underestimate the toxicity of e-cigarette emissions. Some assume it is simply water vapour. Therefore, it is important to point out that all e-cigarettes contain a cocktail of dangerous chemicals. One of the most effective messages tested was: 

“Many of the chemicals in vapes are used for industrial cleaning and are highly corrosive. What do you think they do to your lungs?” 


2 – Focus on dependence and mental health outcomes 

When describing the harms e-cigarettes can cause, it’s important to focus on short term rather than long term harms. For example, the risk of cancer in 30 years does not motivate young people to change their behaviour, as much as the risk of vaping increasing their anxiety levels today.  

Indeed, the negative outcomes that resonated most with young people (and led many to rethink the desirability of vaping) was the risk of dependence and the impact this may have on their mental health. Many of the participants in the focus groups had either experienced these effects or witnessed them in others.  

Pointing out that behaviours like ‘having to return home if you forgot your vape’ or ‘feeling anxious in situations in which you can’t vape’ are signs of dependence, made many feel uncomfortable about the impact vaping is having on them and their friends.  

Given that young people are more aware of, and open about, mental health issues than older generations, messages that pointed to the relationship between vaping and depression and anxiety were highly persuasive.  

3 – Don’t talk down to young people 

Nobody likes being spoken down to. And young people are particularly sensitive to condescending messaging and imagery.  

Therefore, avoid telling young people what to do and instead ask them questions and let them arrive at their own conclusions. For example, instead of saying: “Don’t breathe toxins into your lungs”, you might ask “Do you want toxins in your lungs?”. 

It’s also important to use imagery and language young people are familiar with and use themselves. Involving young people in developing campaign messages and testing the messaging with your target audience would therefore be helpful.  

4 – Don’t be dramatic 

Heavy handed messaging designed to elicit fear will quickly be dismissed as over-dramatic and flatly rejected by young people. Therefore, avoid classic fear campaign imagery and messaging.  

Young people will be far more persuaded by messaging that comes across as factual and compassionate and respectful of their intelligence (see tip 3 above). 


Want more information? 

Visit Common Cause Australia and request access to the full research report. 

Contact Mark Chenery at Common Cause if you have further questions about this work.

Person holds a phone with a social media image of a person vaping toward the camera with sunglasses on

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