23 Jan 2020

Smoking study rejects 'so-called youth vaping epidemic'

10:08 am on 23 January 2020

A major study of youth smoking shows while some young people are experimenting with vaping, daily use of an e-cigarette is occurring overwhelmingly in existing smokers.

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More than 95 percent of students who smoked daily had tried vaping, compared to 25 percent of those who had never smoked tobacco. Photo: 123RF

The annual study, done by Action for Smokefree 2025 and the University of Auckland, surveyed almost 30,000 Year 10 students (aged 14 to 15) about the use of e-cigarettes or vapes.

It found that in 2019, only 3.1 percent of Year 10 students vaped daily, while 37.3 percent have tried an e-cigarette, even just a puff, up from 20.8 percent in 2014.

More than 95 percent of students who smoked daily had tried vaping, compared to 25 percent of those who had never smoked tobacco.

Although a quarter of those who have never smoked had tried at least a single puff of an e-cigarette, less than one percent (0.8 percent) were daily users.

The study - funded by the Ministry of Health - was published in the scientific journal The Lancet Public Health.

Lead author Natalie Walker, an associate professor from the University of Auckland, said the findings were in line with other surveys into youth vaping.

"Our findings are consistent with other national surveys and do not support the idea of a so-called youth vaping epidemic in Aotearoa New Zealand," Dr Walker said.

"Most importantly, our survey looks at daily use which is a far more reliable indicator of likely dependence on vaping, than weekly or monthly use. Despite increases in experimentation, it is encouraging that daily use remains low, especially for non-smokers."

She said it appeared e-cigarettes may actually be displacing smoking for young people.

"Concerns about youth vaping should be weighed against the possibility that e-cigarettes could decrease the risk of smoking initiation and support smoking youth to quit."

Vaping and e-cigarettes are currently unregulated in New Zealand, with advertising and availability widespread.

Plans to regulate were announced by the government in November 2018, but to date no proposals have been tabled.

Action for Smokefree 2025 chairman Emeritus Professor Robert Beaglehole said the findings were encouraging because they showed youth vaping remained low - and largely confined to smokers - despite a lack of government oversight.

"It is the smoke that kills, and without smoke vaping remains far less harmful than smoking. Encouraging existing smokers to switch could have substantial health gains," he said. "Of course, we do not want non-smokers, especially young people, to take up vaping, and this survey suggests that it is an unlikely scenario.

"If we base vaping regulations on unsupported fears of a youth epidemic, we run the very real risk of causing more harm, because we deny access to a much safer alternate to smoking.

"We need sensible regulation of vaping that encourages and enables existing smokers to switch, whilst discouraging those who have never smoked from taking it up on a daily basis."

Auckland Secondary Principals' Association president Richard Dykes told Morning Report that schools were still seeing a significant uptake.

"Certainly we've seen a significant upsurge in the last 12-18 months, with the new fourth generation devices and much greater increase of marketing happening, which is what we're really worried about."

While this research focused on Year 10s, who are usually 14-15 year olds, the Glendowie College principal said other research from the University of Otago showed the trend for vaping was more towards 16 to 18 year olds.

"What we're concerned about is we're seeing the uptake happening at the older age group and we need to be broadening our research and looking there."

Dykes said the data was a "red herring" that might deviate from what he believed was the more important aspect that everyone agreed on - legislation.

"We totally acknowledge that vaping has a place in terms of [smoking cessation] but we need to make sure our rangatahi are safe.

"We need that legislation which is going to control the supply of the product and we also need control of the marketing, if you look around in summer there's been a big surge in roadside marketing and it is targeting young people."

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation launched a campaign late last year aiming to curb teen vaping.

Its chief executive Letitia Harding said all the schools she had spoken to had warned vaping was becoming a big concern, and called for mandatory labelling, testing and nicotine warnings.

She said vaping products were not covered by smokefree legislation and were being marketed towards young people.

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