Tens of thousands of nicotine vapes illegally being sold to children have been seized by state health authorities over the past 18 months as doctors raise concerns about rising uptake among school students.
Between July 2020 and December 2021, NSW Health seized more than 100,000 illegal vaping products, with a street value of more than $2 million.
Since October, it has been illegal to sell e-cigarettes, commonly known as vapes, or e-liquids containing nicotine to a person without a doctor’s prescription.
However, even before the new rules, local public health units had been springing convenience stores, petrol stations and tobacconists who were selling vapes to children, enlisting undercover teenagers to attempt to purchase the products.
Vicky Sheppeard, from the public health unit at South Eastern Sydney Local Health District, said health authorities were working on understanding the rise in vaping among high school students, which she said had increased significantly in 2021.
“We are speaking with principals who are very aware and concerned that there are growing numbers of young people vaping,” she said.
“Unfortunately we understand that, while the use does increase with age, it is not limited to the younger students, and we have had reports of children in primary school vaping.”
Aden, a 17-year-old from Sydney’s west, said vaping had spread among his peers over the past couple of years. He said vapes were “ridiculously easy to buy” as a teenager at convenience stores and service stations.
“[Teenagers] know how to walk in when there’s no one else in the shop and how to ask for it without being obvious,” he said.
In September 2020, the Children’s Hospital at Randwick’s intensive care unit treated what was reported in the Medical Journal of Australia as the country’s first case of vape-induced lung disease. The patient, 15-year-old Dakota Stephenson, has since spoken publicly about her ordeal, advocating against vape use for teenagers.
Toxicologist Betty Chan, who treated Ms Stephenson, said EVALI – an “e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury” – was at the extreme end of damage that vaping can do to a child’s physical health, but other risks were more common.
“The immediate risk is that it can increase incidence of bronchitis and asthma,” she said, noting that studies abroad had found associations between vaping and other substance use.
In a 2020 study of 52 e-liquids, researchers from Curtin University and the Telethon Kids Institute found all contained at least one chemical that had unknown effects on respiratory health, with some using up to 18 chemicals in this category.
“Men at war were given cigarettes to stay awake; it was only years later that we ended up with record spending for cancer of the lung,” Dr Chan said. “We do not yet understand enough about what you are doing to your body when you vape.”
Parents should be particularly mindful of having vaping products in the home, Dr Chan said, with liquid nicotine potentially fatal if ingested. In 2018, a Victorian 18-month-old died when he consumed liquid nicotine from a bottle left open while his mother refilled her vape.
“Vaping products contain an extremely concentrated amount of nicotine,” Dr Chan said. “No child has died from eating a cigarette butt.”
Mary Ward – Sydney Morning Herald – 2022-02-14.