We work at Griffith University Hazy ghosts initiative. The program uses games to educate Australian high school students about alcohol, drugs and vaping. As part of our research, schools often tell us that they don’t have the tools and strategies to deal with the vaping crisis. In previous years, schools sought our help the most for alcohol or cannabis. Now it’s for vaping.
According to a 2022 study, 32% of teens in New South Wales between the ages of 14 and 17 have tried vaping at least once. A 2017 national study found 13% of 12 to 17 year olds had tried.
Unfortunately, our survey research also shows that vaping is common among teens. But it also tells us that young people understand that it is unsafe and unhealthy. This suggests there are real opportunities for schools – and parents – to step in and help young people avoid the serious harms that vaping entails.
What is vaping and why is it so dangerous?
E-cigarettes or “vapes” are battery-powered devices that resemble metal pens, USBs, watches, or other small box-like objects. Cartridges of vape liquids or “juices” are heated and converted to vapor, which the user inhales along with harmful artificial flavors and chemicals and other potential contaminants from the manufacturing process or device.
A single vaporizer can contain as much nicotine as ten packs of cigarettes.
Research shows that vaping can lead to lung injury, cardiovascular disease, respiratory infectionsother serious, negative effects including on the development of the brain and the immune system. Not only can vaping lead to long-term addiction, it is also associated with other health risks such as seizures, acute nicotine toxicity and burns.
Read more: How bad is vaping and should it be banned?
What schools tell us
There are many reasons why a teen might vape. Usually curiosity or peer pressure lead to their first experience. As researchers, we’ve heard stories of young college students trying vapes because they “taste like bubblegum,” have “colorful designs,” and “smell good.”
In 2022, we spoke to nearly 400 schools across Australia about their issues with vaping, alcohol and other drugs. Headmasters on the Gold Coast alone reported hundreds of thousands of missed school days and an increase in expulsions due to vaping.
We’ve heard of schools closing off toilets to prevent students from having a place to vape. But this only causes addicted students to miss school to vape elsewhere. We’ve also heard of students being homeschooled so they can keep vaping.
Schools know they play an important role in reducing the practice, but say punitive approaches don’t help students kick the habit.
What students say: our research
Last year, we surveyed 2,777 college students with an average age of 14 to understand their attitudes toward vaping, alcohol, and drugs. We found:
Vaping is common among young people. 27% of students have vaped at least once before, 37% said they do it several times a day
But young people know it’s not good for them. Over 96% said vaping is unsafe (this includes 85% who said it was “totally unsafe”). Over 96% said they don’t think vaping is healthy (this includes 89% who said they “completely disagreed” that it was healthy)
Students think there are far more teens vaping than there actually are. Presented with the statement “most Australian teens vape”, over 60% agreed
Peer pressure is a factor. Respondents said they would find it harder not to vape around friends. Over 17% said they are “insecure about their ability to withstand a vape” when alone, compared to 24% when with friends.
‘I don’t want your germs’: how to talk about vaping
In the future, there are many strategies that teachers and schools can use to empower their students not to vape. These include:
Challenging the “everyone is doing it” idea. Our research suggests that young people think more people vape than actually vape. If they’re concerned about fitting in, we need to give them the facts
Empowering young people to know they can refuse to vape. This includes ways to say no without being singled out. Examples of what students might say are: “I don’t want to waste my money”, “I saw them explode”, “I have asthma”, “I don’t want your germs” or “Did you hear the horrible things in that ?
Insight into the impact on their health. This allows them to make accurate choices about their well-being, rather than what they think others want from them
Don’t preach. Our research shows that teachers see much more engagement when they use tools such as games, quizzes, videos and various media elements instead of a lecture. If you’re a teacher looking for ways to engage your students, our researchers have developed free games and a free online vapor module.
Read more: Sex and lies are used to sell vapes online. Even we were surprised by the marketing tactics we found