(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

If governments at both state and federal levels really wanted to work together to make a difference in the lives of our young teens, a focus on vaping would be an almighty good start.

In the past month, dozens of schools in several states have disciplined students for vaping in toilets, behind classrooms or on sports fields. But it’s the age of the students that should cause most alarm here. Routinely they are in Years 6, 7 and 8.

“And they don’t even think they are cigarettes,” one teacher said. “That’s because they smell like strawberries.”

If thousands of pre-teens were lighting up cigarettes bought online or on the black market there would be national outrage, crisis meetings and a call for parents to lift their game and know what their children are doing.

But vaping has been allowed to spiral out of control due to a lack of knowledge about its ingredients, and an absence of regulation that has seen a huge percentage — some experts estimate perhaps more than 90% — of disposable vapes come from China, where companies can make half a million in a single day. If we are going to take on China, this is no less important to the future of our children than tiffs over trade.

Late in 2021 in Australia it became illegal to buy nicotine vaping products from overseas websites (as well as locally) without a doctor’s prescription, but already a black market on social media has made up for any sales losses.

And arguably this has made it even more difficult to police. The lack of transparency around ingredients is at the heart of how damaging vaping can be. The same toxic and cancer-causing chemicals found in regular cigarettes are being found in vapes.

“This includes the highly addictive chemical nicotine, heavy metals, ultrafine particles, volatile organic compounds and some flavouring chemicals that can be harmful to health,” a Queensland Department of Health guide says.

Nicotine has been found in e-cigarette liquids claiming to be nicotine-free, and one teaspoon of commercially available liquid nicotine, according to some experts, can be irreversibly damaging or fatal for a young child.

Big vaping proponents, like big tobacco in decades past, are happy to attack detractors in an attempt to silence them. In an illustration of the murky influence of those pushing vapes, last night Four Corners revealed how a national vaping lobby group donated a total of $44,000 to the Liberal Party. 

GPs say the take-up in vaping by young adults had swamped the reduction in traditional tobacco smoking in older age groups.

“We just don’t know what’s in half of these little vape sticks. It’s not just water and nicotine, because nicotine doesn’t taste like blueberries,” one says.

Indeed the nicotine levels in some vapes have been found to be higher than in traditional cigarettes. And a NSW Health study has found that 70% of vapes contained high levels of nicotine — even though the labels do not mention nicotine as an ingredient.

And yet 400,000 Australians are vaping, and the number of young Australians who’ve taken it up has doubled over the past year.

Alarmingly, educators say it is younger students who are trying it, believing it’s not dangerous and was akin to “inhaling lollies” (because of the different flavours on offer). And those still doing it in senior school are addicted to the disguised nicotine they’ve been ingesting for several years.

We need to do more than say a prescription is required to access a vape. We need to teach children what they are consuming, police a black market that is growing by the day, and stop their import at the borders.