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Pam Bubrzycki: Ugly truth of vaping glamour

May 2, 2023

Chief Services Officer Pam Bubrzycki calls on governments to tackle the growing problems around young people and vaping.

Before the health risks of smoking were established, it was seen as a harmless and glamourous vice. We bought the lie sold to us by the Marlborough Man and those fresh-faced Alpine women.

Then came the research, the evidence and the whistle-blowers, followed by legislation, regulation, education and year upon year of high-profile public health campaigns – I still remember the tar being squeezed out of that sponge.

We know the steps to take. So why aren’t they being taken when it comes to vaping?

Statistics are mounting that prove that vapes are a future public health liability. A recent survey conducted by the George Institute for Global Health found 35 per cent of Australian primary school teachers reported some of their students were using vapes. More than one-quarter of this group said the problem had worsened in the past two years.

Youth vaping rates have tripled in the past three years with 14 per cent of 15-30 year olds being current vape users and 33 per cent having tried vapes in the past.

As we know, apart from containing a host of chemicals often found in cleaning products, many of these vaping liquids illegally contain nicotine, often failing to declare this on the package.

There is an often-repeated fact in this debate that makes me very scared for the very young person picking up that vape – the nicotine in one vape can equal 50 cigarettes. And there is evidence that one in three people who vape progress to smoking.

How have we let this happen? Part of me wants to blame Covid for the way vaping appears to have snuck under our radar. We’ve been paying attention to more pressing matters.

So, what now?

The research on vaping is building, but we cannot yet say definitively whether it is linked to cancer or heart disease or lung disease. We need to invest more time and effort into uncovering what price the young vapers of today will be paying in the future.

When it comes to legislation, legislators are trying to keep up. As it is, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has made recent recommendations to further regulate vape products.  I believe banning those dessert-flavoured vape products would go a long way to reducing the appeal, and let’s get more boots on the ground to check up on retailers selling vapes under the counter.

But what about trying to get young people to understand that they are being sold the modern-day Marlboro Man lie?

A 2019 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention linked daily use of social media platforms, such as Instagram, to experimental and current vaping among teenagers.

While it’s great to educate young people and talk about the facts of vaping, we also need to chip away at the aura of glamour surrounding vaping. We need powerful images that will stand up against the likes of Cara Delevinge and Snoop Dogg casually vaping on a red carpet.

The current campaign running in the US – The Real Cost of E-Cigarettes – does well to counter the glamour. Their latest ad shows a young girl reaching into a toilet to retrieve her fallen vape, and then puffing on it because she is so desperate for a hit. It’s anything but pretty.

In the US, one anti-vaping group has tried to harness the power of influencers, paying a group of six young TikTok influencers to quit vaping and document their journey. One of those influencers alone had six million followers. It’s time we started finding some Australian influencers to do the same.

We need to take the shine off these products, remove the “vape screen” and show them for the damaging poisons that they really are – before yet another generation’s health goes up in vapour.

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