It’s been a while since young people’s use of alcohol and other drugs has been a prominent concern. For several years the focus has been on problems with excessive gaming and social media use with their attendant risks. But a recent upsurge in the use of e-cigarettes is gaining attention.
By now most people know that e-cigarettes involve the heating of a liquid and inhaling of the vapour (called vaping) which may or may not contain nicotine. In Australia, e-cigarettes containing nicotine are illegal (except when prescribed by a doctor), but a problem is that even ones labelled nicotine-free may actually contain nicotine anyway.
Some devices resemble conventional cigarettes, cigars or pipes, while others look like everyday items such as pens or USB memory sticks.
It’s always good to bear in mind that while many young people will try alcohol or other drugs including e-cigarettes, most will not continue their use.
What’s more, a recent national survey from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare confirms international trends we have observed for many years in Australia too that young people are using alcohol and other drugs to a lesser extent than earlier generations.
For example, two-thirds of 14 to 17-year-olds reported they had never consumed a full standard drink - more than double the proportion in 2001.
Just 22 per cent of 14-to-19-year-olds reported having used an illicit drug, down from 38 per cent in 2001. Almost 97 per cent of respondents aged under 18 reported they had never smoked tobacco. The percentage of teenage daily smokers has fallen by 80% since 2001.
Ironically, one expert speculates that socialising online over gaming and social media may be a factor in declining alcohol and drug use, so we’re back to where we started!
But what about e-cigarettes? Their use, itself a recent development, has increased as you might expect. It rose from 8.8 per cent of Australians in 2016 to 11.3 per cent in 2019, with a much greater increase among smokers.
Are e-cigarettes safe? It’s early days to answer that question with certainty due to limited research, but there are plenty of reasons to be very cautious and to discourage their use particularly among teenagers.
Many e-liquids come in flavours that are attractive to young people, such as mango, lime and mint. Is not clear yet whether vaping might encourage some young people to take up tobacco smoking who would not otherwise have done so.
Most countries have no regulations governing e-cigarette design and product approval. There have been frequent reports about nicotine poisonings, and over 200 cases have been reported in the US and UK of e-cigarettes overheating, catching fire or exploding, causing serious and in some cases life threatening injury, disability and disfigurement.
Some vaping products contain THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. The e-cigarette heat may also produce toxic substances.
Parents/carers are already good at talking to their teens about alcohol, smoking and drugs. E-cigarettes should be included in the conversation. The earlier and more often you speak with young people about e-cigarettes, the more likely they are to listen.