Published 09 Nov 2023
Much cheaper than a packet of cigarettes, readily available and flavoured to target ‘non-smokers’, the popularity of e-cigarettes has steadily increased over the past two decades, particularly among teenagers and young adults. Let’s take a look at vaping in more detail and unpack the associated health risks.
What is vaping?
Vaping refers to the process of inhaling vapours generated by an electronic cigarette (e-cigarette), regardless of whether it contains nicotine or not. Originally developed as a smoking cessation tool – the efficacy of which is keenly debated – e-cigarettes simulate the act of traditional smoking with the key difference that vapours are inhaled rather than smoke.
Vaping remains a relatively new phenomenon, yet the associated health risks and dangers have already come to light. With public concern growing, the Australian government introduced new measures in 2023 to tackle the ‘vaping epidemic’, stem the flow and sale of illegal imports and reinforce the prescription pathway for e-cigarettes.
Is vaping less harmful thank smoking?
E-cigarettes do not generally contain tobacco and nicotine-free products were initially promoted as a ‘safer’ alternative to traditional smoking, which goes some way to explaining the rapid uptake and why many people perceive vaping to cause less harm, but it is not without its risks. Vaping is often mistakenly thought of as inhaling water vapour, but this is far from the truth. E-cigarettes work by heating up an ‘e-liquid’ to produce an aerosol that can be breathed in, and as we’ll learn, the chemical contents of these formulations can vary widely.
What is in e-cigarettes?
The import and sale of nicotine-containing products is heavily regulated in Australia, and it is illegal to possess, sell or buy e-cigarettes with nicotine without a valid prescription. Further to this, the sale of non-nicotine containing e-cigarettes is restricted to those aged 18 years and older. Vaping products are often incorrectly labelled to avoid detection and pass through strict Australian border controls illegally. Much of the ‘nicotine-free’ product available on the market has been found to contain nicotine despite the clear labelling advising otherwise, which begs the question: what else does it contain?
E-cigarette vapours can be inhaled deep into the lungs in the same way as cigarette smoke and numerous studies show that many of these products emit toxic substances. Chemicals commonly found in e-liquids purchased without a valid prescription include propylene glycol, heavy metals, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde alongside other harmful compounds that have the potential to be carcinogenic when inhaled or have unknown long-term effects on respiratory health.
What are the health impacts?
It is important to understand the health risks associated with vaping, particularly if using e-cigarettes that have not been prescribed by your doctor. E-cigarettes are generally prescribed as a lower-risk alternative to traditional cigarettes and as a last resort when other methods of smoking cessation have been unsuccessful, but they should never be considered as a ‘safe’ or risk-free option.
Vaping has been linked to chronic health issues such as:
- lung disease and damage
- cardiovascular risks such as increased heart rate and blood pressure
- nicotine addiction and dependency
- increased risks of gum disease and adverse impacts on oral health
Alaraming findings from the Australian National University show that e-cigarettes can also act as a gateway to smoking, with non-smokers who use these products up to three times more likely to move on to traditional cigarettes. This makes vaping a significant public health concern as it threatens to undo decades of policy and tobacco control programmes that have driven down smoking rates and nicotine addiction in Australia.
Shorter-term risks of vaping include nausea, difficulty breathing, headaches, burns, injury and seizures, as well as poisoning. The nicotine in e-liquids can cause serious harm and even death if it is ingested or comes into contact with the skin or eyes. E-cigarettes should always be stored out of reach of children.
It is promising to see the government taking vaping seriously and introducing key actions to address this significant public health issue and the accessibility of e-cigarettes for young people. If you are concerned about your own vaping habits, it may be time to consider quitting.
Those addicted to vaping are likely to be battling nicotine addiction and the process of quitting is therefore very similar to traditional cigarettes. Explore five ways to improve your chances to quit smoking, or visit quit.org.au for more information.
Looking to give nicotine the flick?
Benefits towards Nicotine Replacement Patches are included in all GMHBA products with extras, and some eligible products also pay benefits for Quit Smoking Programs where there is a doctor’s letter of recommendation. Waiting periods and annual limits apply, learn more about your extras in your member area.