Are Australia’s Teen Vaping Rates as Alarming as Depicted in the Media?

While Australia's Mark Butler is expected to present a bill proposing to ban manufacture, supply, advertising and commercial possession, later this month, a new wave of panic about local teen vaping rates seems to have taken over the media (and many's common sense).

These past couple of weeks, multiple headlines about Australia’s renewed panic about local teen vaping rates made the rounds. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reported that one in five people aged 14 and over (19.8%) reported having used a vape at least once. Current use has risen from 2.5% in 2019 to 7% in 2022–23, especially among those aged 18–24, where current use increased from 5.3% in 2019 to 21% in 2022–23.
Many tobacco control groups argue that in most cases vaping products are being used recreationally, particularly among young non-smokers. However, the data are clear, the rise in vaping is has coincided with a significant drop in daily smoking rates, falling from 24% in 1991, to an astounding 8.3% in 2022–23.

Naturally, there have also been concerns about widespread vaping in schools, with students observed using e-cigarettes in bathrooms, locker rooms, and even classrooms. The Australian government is tackling the issue by stopping the import of non-prescription vapes, increasing quality standards, requiring pharmaceutical-like packaging, and banning single-use disposable vapes. However these measures do more to restrict vaping by adult smokers seeking to quit, than limiting access by teens, which could be achieved by licensing vape shops, CCTV records, and set harsh penalties for underage sales.

What do the numbers actually tell us?
In fact, Australian smoking cessation expert Dr. Colin Mendelsohn revealed that data from the 2022/23 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) contradicts claims of a youth vaping crisis in Australia. He explained that the survey indicates that in fact regular youth vaping is rare and is contributing to a decline in deadly smoking. Youth smoking rates have decreased 53% from 1.9% to 0.9% in 2023, and the daily youth smoking rate fell over 50% faster since vaping became available in 2016.

The decline rate increased to 8.4% per year after 2016, compared to 5.4% from 2001-2016. The NDSHS findings suggest that vaping is not a gateway to smoking but is instead a gateway out of smoking. Most young non-smokers who try vaping do so infrequently and transiently, with only 3.5% vaping daily.

Mendesohn argues that the harmful effects of vaping are rare and primarily associated with frequent, long-term use. He also adresses claims that vaping is addicting a whole new generation to nicotine, pointing out that only about 3% of 14-17-year-olds are addicted, and some of these may have already been nicotine dependent from smoking.

Prohibition is feeding a growing monster
Tobacco harm reduction experts agree that the retail sales ban on vaping products should be reversed to allow adult smokers easier access to vapes. High taxes and a prescription model for accessing vaping products have inadvertently fueled a growing black market for these products. While intended to reduce smoking and vaping, these policies have led to unintended consequences, with criminal networks engaging in violence and illegal activities related to the illicit tobacco and vape trade.

The Conversation reported that there have been over 40 firebombings of stores selling illicit tobacco and vapes in Victoria, and reports of standover tactics and extortion targeting tobacco shop owners are on the rise. The black market for these products is estimated to be worth up to $500 million in Victoria alone, while large scale seizures of the products have been reported across all Australian territories. “Not only do bans not work from a public health point of view but they generate all the disastrous problems of the drug wars,” Mendelsohn told Vaping Post.

On the demand side, smokers from lower socio-economic groups and minors, unwilling or unable to pay high prices for cigarettes, or purchase them at all, are turning to the black market. Additionally, people who vape are largely rejecting the government’s prescription model, with 87% reporting that they source their vapes illegally. The supply side is driven by economic factors, as traffickers are attracted to opportunities with low risks and high rewards. Illicit tobacco and vapes offer substantial profits, and the penalties for their importation are not as severe as those for drugs like cocaine. ”

As it has been repeated over and over, the black market poses dangers beyond violence, including the influx of inferior and unregulated products that can pose health risks, increased access for young people, and the criminalization of consumers. Policymakers and the public need to consider these risks and the economic forces driving the black market when evaluating tobacco and vaping policies. As has been tirelessy highlighted by experts in the field, what Australia needs is a legislative reform, enhanced cooperation among agencies, nationally consistent policy platforms, and a reconsideration of some restrictions to strike a balance that reduces harm without feeding the current black market.