Vapes, once more commonly known as e-cigarettes, are the latest form of nicotine delivery systems that are increasingly obvious all around New Zealand, including in our schools. The growth in the prevalence of vaping has been accompanied by a significant amount of misleading and disingenuous information.
A recent article in the North and South magazine titled 'Lost in the Clouds' opined that "As a new generation succumbs to nicotine addiction, New Zealand's approach to vaping has been bafflingly lax." Unfortunately, the same accusation could be leveled at our approach to alcohol consumption and in more recent years the advent of 'legal highs' that negatively affected many lives when they were available over the counter at most corner dairies. The article noted:
"They're promoted by the vaping industry and the government alike as a healthier alternative to cigarettes. But that doesn't mean they are actually healthy. A growing number of academics, researchers and medical professionals believe vape companies have long abandoned the pretense that their product is a cigarette alternative and instead are creating a new generation of first-time vapers (and nicotine addicts) - particularly among younger New Zealanders."
Vaping as a 'Healthy' Choice?
The message that vaping is less dangerous than cigarette smoking seems to have been misconstrued and taken to mean that vaping is safe. This is not the case. While vapes contain significantly less than the more than 70 carcinogens and 7,000 additional chemicals found in a cigarette, they are not free of either. Vaping might be healthier than cigarette smoking, but it is much less healthy than not vaping.
The North and South article states that "Many vape juice varieties sound more like a healthy smoothie than a potent nicotine delivery system: Crisp Mint, Strawberry Burst, Green Apple, Peaches and Cream, Taro Milk, Watermellon Ice." It was also identified that "Young people's brains build synapses faster than adult brains. Because nicotine changes the way in which synapses are formed, early exposure presents a much greater chance of addiction."
Yes, some vapes are nicotine-free. However, even in these instances, there is little evidence that the vape juices have been proven to be safe. Additionally, it is likely that few young people carefully check the ingredients in the vape juice they are using, and as you can see from the illustration below, the harmful and addictive ingredients are not readily identified on the packaging.
Two pieces of particularly concerning news have come out of America in recent months. The first was a higher percentage of young people who were significantly affected by Covid-19 than was seen in many other countries, likely because of the harm vaping had done to their lungs prior to infection. The second was the first increase in youth cigarette smoking rates in decades. Again, this reversal in decades of youth behaviour was linked to rapidly increasing rates of vaping. Both of these occurrences should sound a warning for all of us who are parents or work with young people.
Why is Vaping an Increasingly Popular Teenage Choice?
Vaping is much more affordable than cigarette smoking. Because of the misunderstood and misconstrued 'health benefits' vaping has not attracted the same social stigma that cigarette smoking has. The marketing of vapes and vape juices is also significantly different to that of cigarettes and appears to be designed specifically to appeal to a young audience.
Vapes come in thousands of unmistakably child-friendly flavours with enticing names. The flavours mask the taste of the nicotine and other chemicals contained in the e-liquid, making it easier for the aerosol to be inhaled. Contrary to popular belief, the aerosol is not simply water vapour and consists of a variety of chemicals, heavy metals and fine particles that can be both toxic and dangerous when they are absorbed into the bloodstream through vaping.
Unfortunately, these factors have combined to see rapid increases in rates of youth vaping throughout New Zealand and a growing health issue that schools have been forced to respond to.
The Health Effects of Vaping
The publication 'Vaping: What Families Need to Know to Help Protect Children, Teens and Young Adults', attached at the bottom of this article, highlights that "it is now widely accepted that vaping is unhealthy and dangerous."
The more immediate health effects include coughing and wheezing, behavioural and mood changes, headaches, seizures, vomiting and potential severe lung injury. Vaping also negatively affects teens' attention, learning and impulse control in a way that can harm them in school, sports and social situations.
Furthermore, it is noted that:
Most ingredients contain cancer-causing and other toxic chemicals, heavy metals and tiny particles that go deep into the lungs and cause lung damage and reduced ability to fight off infections.
The website 'Don't Get Sucked In' provides factual information and might be something for parents to explore with their sons and provide a good starting point for discussions about the impact of vaping.
Palmerston North Boys' High School Fundamental Rules state that "No student shall smoke e-cigarettes, vaporisers, tobacco or other similar product, supply e-cigarettes, vaporisers, tobacco or other similar product to other students or have e-cigarettes, vaporisers, tobacco or other similar product in his possession while under the authority of the school." Students are deemed to be under the authority of the school "while present at school during an official school day; representing the school at any time whether it be in sport, cultural pursuits or any other activity; on a school trip whether or not a parent or guardian is also present; on the way to and from school, and; at any time they are wearing school uniform." Young men who are caught vaping or in possession of vapes and/or vape juice will be followed up through school discipline processes.
In November 2020 changes took effect under the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act that saw the existing prohibition on smoking at schools extended to include vaping. Consequently, any students who are vaping at school are breaking both school rules and New Zealand law.
Our preference is for young men to understand the potential harm they are doing to themselves and to make decisions that do not put themselves at risk, rather than forcing us to react. Unfortunately, though, this is not always the way that teenagers operate. Given the increasing prevelance of vaping in society in general and the very confusing and often disingenious messaging that is accompanying it, we encourage all parents to be having conversations with their sons about vaping and the risks associated with it. The impact and health risks associated with vaping are covered in the Health curriculum.
Attached to this article is a publication titled 'Vaping: What Families Need to Know to Help Protect Children, Teens and Young Adults' which provides a factual overview of vaping. Please note this is an American publication so some of the age limits and agencies referred to do not apply to the New Zealand context.