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E-cigarettes too easy for teens to access

Thursday 20 May, 2021

E-cigarette companies are dodging government regulations through social media, and more teenagers in Australia are taking up e-cigarette use. But Cancer Council Victoria is developing resources to educate our kids – as well as their parents and teachers.

Even though the direct advertising and promoting of tobacco and e-cigarette products is banned in Australia, companies circumvent these bans by adopting a range of online marketing tactics to lure teenagers and young people to use their products.

These tactics include using paid influencers to promote their products on social media platforms, installing product placement across streaming services, and funding front-groups which advocate for the loosening of restrictions on availability and use.

Data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019, released in 2020, showed there has been a significant increase in the number of teenagers experimenting with or using e-cigarettes since 2016.

Concerningly, 64.5% of 14–17-year-olds and 39% of 18–24-year-olds reported they were never smokers at the point they first tried e-cigarettes.

In February 2020, the Royal Children’s Hospital Child Health Poll found that Australian parents were likely to be underestimating e-cigarette use by children.

The Poll found that only 7% of parents believe their children have used an e-cigarette but 13% of children reported e-cigarette use in the Australian Secondary Schools Alcohol and Drug Survey.

Taken together, these findings suggest many parents are unaware their children are experimenting with or using e-cigarettes. Both surveys showed that approximately half the children using e-cigarettes obtained them from another child.

Anecdotally, there are many reports of children using devices on the school grounds and possibly even in classrooms. For an example media report, see The Age.

Not only does e-cigarette use among teenagers pose the risk of more young people becoming addicted to nicotine, the liquid used in e-cigarettes is toxic and can be fatal if swallowed.

"Nicotine is a highly toxic substance and in acute poisoning, death may occur within minutes due to respiratory failure arising from paralysis of the muscles of respiration. The fatal dose of nicotine for an adult is 40–60mg,” said the National Drugs and Poisons Schedule Committee.

E-cigarettes come in many forms, and the “vape” liquid comes in many fruity and sweet flavours – making them more appealing to young people.

The risk of nicotine poisoning is very concerning given that most e-cigarettes and e-liquid products are not made with basic safety features. E-cigarettes may leak, causing a hazard when nicotine is absorbed through the skin, and e-liquid containers can be easily opened.

Quit Victoria director Dr Sarah White said it is important that teens and parents are aware of the immoral tactics employed by the tobacco industry, designed to encourage children to take up smoking or vaping.

“The manufacturers and retailers of tobacco products and e-cigarettes are desperate to get a new generation of kids hooked on nicotine to stay in business,” she said.

Cancer Council Victoria Chief Executive Officer Todd Harper said more work needs to be done to protect kids form these dangerous products.

“Australians are no longer in the dark about smoking-caused health issues. Thanks to government, graphic health warnings on cigarette packs and TV-led public education campaigns are continuing to work to educate people on their risk and help them quit.

“But the time has come for us to make a stand against the devious tactics employed by all commercial interests seeking to profit from addicting children to nicotine,” he said.

The Victorian Department of Health has commissioned Quit to work with appropriate partners to develop a series of new resources highlighting how e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers target teenagers and the dangers of e-cigarette use.

The resources – which will be developed for teenagers, parents and teachers – will expose the predatory marketing employed to make e-cigarettes or “vapes” appealing to new users, and debunk some of the tactics and myths used to make the products seem less harmful.

The resources will be distributed and will be available for download on the Quit website later this year.

Anyone seeking help to quit cigarettes or e-cigarettes can call Quitline on 13 78 48 for specialist and empathetic help tailored to meet their individual needs.

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