School vaping 'epidemic' doesn't actually exist - study

Anti-smoking advocates are welcoming new figures showing few teens that haven't smoked are being tempted to take up vaping instead.

Researchers at the University of Auckland looked at data from a survey of more than 27,000 students aged 14 and 15, and found only 0.8 percent of them were regular vapers (at least daily) who'd never smoked before.

Just over a third (37.3 percent) of the students had tried vaping, compared to 19.6 percent who'd tried traditional cigarettes. Daily e-cigarettes use is more widespread than smoking - 3.1 percent to 2.1 percent. 

Twenty years ago, before e-cigarettes were invented, Ministry of Health data shows around 29 percent of year 10 students regularly smoked. 

Health advocates - including the Government - have touted vaping as a harm reduction measure for adults, but the researchers say it appears to be working on kids as well.

"The overall decline in smoking over the past six years in New Zealand youth suggests that e-cigarettes might be displacing smoking," the study, published in The Lancet Public Health, says.

"It's fantastic," Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) director Deborah Hart told The AM Show on Thursday.

"We know that vaping causes less harm than smoking. The Royal College of Physicians says 95 percent less harm than smoking."

The research seems to be at odds with anecdotal reports from schools.

"Literally at every interval we are confiscating vapes. It's a huge concern for us," Auckland Secondary School Principals' Association president Richard Dykes told NZME

Auckland Grammar School principal Tim O'Connor told Newshub in August it was an "epidemic". 

But the researchers say their "findings do not support the notion of a so-called vaping epidemic in New Zealand or a large youth population dependent on vaping".

They even suggest it's "likely to be less harmful than other behaviours such as hazardous drinking... and use of cannabis", both of which research suggests are more common than vaping amongst teenagers and young adults.

"That's fantastic news - it's not an epidemic. We are so relieved to hear that," said Hart.

"Vaping is being marketed to young people as a cool thing to do," said Hart. "It's not working particularly well, funnily enough, but it could and we want to stop it."

Deborah Hart.
Deborah Hart. Photo credit: The AM Show

Anecdotal reports of vaping 'epidemics' could be down to the schools' different demographics. The research found Māori students were almost three times more likely to have ever tried e-cigarettes or tobacco cigarettes than others, and Pacific students 1.5 times as likely. 

"Students from low-decile and mid-decile schools were significantly more likely to have ever tried e-cigarettes or ever smoked cigarettes than were those from high-decile schools," the study says. "Students who were gender diverse were three times more likely to have ever tried e-cigarettes or cigarettes than were female students, and male students were more likely to have ever tried an e-cigarette than were female students."

Despite a number of deaths in the US recently linked to black market cannabis vapes, and a lack of research on the long-term effects of e-cigarette use, Hart says regulation in New Zealand has ensured vaping remains vastly preferable to smoking.

"It's not good for you to put anything into your lungs except clean air. That's what we should be putting in our lungs. [Vaping is] a better thing to do if you are smoking - we know smoking kills you.

"I wouldn't say it's safe - it's a harm reduction tool for those who are smoking."