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HomeAustraliaVaping and behaviour in schools: what does the research tell us?

Vaping and behaviour in schools: what does the research tell us?


In a major speech today, Federal Health Secretary Mark Butler said vaping has become “the number one behavioral problem in high schools.”

The government today proposed a series of reforms to curb vaping.

But what does the evidence show about the prevalence of vaping in schools and the kind of behavioral problems associated with it?

My colleagues and I have been researching teen vaping use through the Generation vapor study. We tracked teens’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors about vape (also known as e-cigarette) use.

This involved interviewing and surveying young people across Australia aged 13–17, their parents and carers and secondary school teachers, principals and administrators.

Here’s what we know so far.

Read more: Albanian government launches war on vaping, declares it the ‘number one behavioral problem in high schools’

How widespread is vaping in high schools?

Of the 721 young people we have investigated so far:

  • 32% had ever vaped (we call these people “ever-vapers”)

  • 54% of ever-vapers had never smoked cigarettes before they started vaping

  • ever smokers were seven times more likely to be ever vapers than those who had never smoked (in other words, young people who have tried smoking are much more likely to have tried vaping)

  • ever-vapers were 18 times more likely to be ever-smokers than those who had never vaped (in other words, young people who had ever tried vaping were considerable more likely to have ever tried to smoke).

Most of our respondents said flavor and taste were the most important factor when vaping.

In other words, about one in three teens has tried vaping. It was really rare just a few years ago, but it has exploded in use.

We also asked about vaping frequency. We found that 10% typically used vapes six or more days a month, but the fact that most are occasional users suggests we now have an opportunity to take action before these people become addicted.

Occasional users told us they try vaping because they’re curious, interested in experiencing the hit of nicotine, and don’t imagine becoming addicted. Unfortunately, they often quickly become addicted, which is why a public health response is so urgently needed.

Our data also shows:

  • more than half of those trying vaping for the first time are under 16 years old

  • more than half of ever vapers reported using a vape they knew contained nicotine

  • Vaping is seen as a socially acceptable behavior separate from and unique to smoking.

A 17-year-old ever-vaper told us that “nobody” buys the non-nicotine devices

because they don’t give you head spin, so they’re pointless. It’s almost like wasting money.

Another 17-year-old former vaper told us:

Oh, you can get those without nicotine, but I don’t think they are very popular (…) it tells you when you buy a vape how much nicotine is in it. Usually that is 5%.

Vapes are small and easy to hide.

What do teachers, principals and school administrators say?

In our surveys and interviews with teachers, principals and school administrators, we found:

  • 58% of teachers seized vaping products from students two or more times a week

  • 86% of teachers are concerned or very concerned about students vaping in their school

  • 62% of teachers are aware of the sale of vaping products on school grounds.

Teachers reported feeling they had to control students by searching bags and pencil cases, and that it took time to teach if they had to treat vaping as a disciplinary matter.

Principals and school administrators talked about having to

  • use school fees to install vapor detectors in school toilets

  • liaise with parents of children caught vaping

  • think about safety issues caused by people coming to the school gates to sell vapes to students.

When kids are addicted, we don’t want them kicked out of school. It is not their fault that they have become addicted to these products. That is why we need a public health response, rather than a punitive one.

A director told us:

it’s probably the most disruptive thing in our school right now.

Another teacher said:

even if you catch them, they deny to your face and then you have a fight (…) it becomes a huge problem and 40 minutes of your life are taken away with just this one thing, when as a teacher you should be doing other things.

Another director said:

We can bring it up with the kids as often as we want, but I think we need to get a little grip on that outside of school as well.

What kind of behavioral problems are associated with school vaping?

Teens who vape regularly reported:

  • experiencing nicotine withdrawal at school, which can feel like anxiety or stress (many told us they vape for their mental health, not understanding that stress is related to the addiction)

  • sneaking out of class to vape

  • feeling distracted and finding it difficult to concentrate in class

  • feeling stressed about having to hide their device and their vape at school.

A 17-year-old told us:

I saw people at school (…) say at 9am, “Oh, do you have a vape? Do you have a vape? I need one. I haven’t had one all day”, and people around it beg (…) so I think it’s mainly an addiction in people who are heavy users.

What is the evidence that tells us that is necessary?

The evidence tells us we really need to get these products out of the hands of young people. That’s why it’s essential to make them harder to buy.

About 80% of our respondents told us it was easy to get vapes; it was common knowledge who sold them at school or that certain people would sell them at the school gate.

That’s why the import ban in the government reforms is so important, and why it’s critical that states and territories work with the federal government to get vaping out of convenience stores and gas stations. It’s about reducing access so kids aren’t exposed to it when they walk to school.

Is it really the main high school behavior problem?

It’s impossible to say. But the data certainly tells us it’s a very big deal.

Of the teachers we surveyed, 86% said they were “very concerned” about vaping in school. In interviews, teachers often described vaping as the main issue they face outside of the classroom.

Schools face so many problems, so if we can reduce them or even take them off their plate altogether, then we should.

Read more: We asked over 700 teens where they bought their vaporizers. This is what they said

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