Young vapers smoking more nicotine than a pack of cigarettes each day - survey

Robin Martin for RNZ

An organisation which provides health education to young people says some rangatahi who vape are consuming as much nicotine as someone smoking a pack-and-a-half-a-day of cigarettes a day.

The Life Education Trust says schools are crying out for help because they are dealing with young people with full-on dependancy issues.

The latest Asthma and Respiratory Foundation and Secondary Principal's Association Survey found 27 percent of young people had vaped in the last seven days.

And the ASH Year 10 Snapshot showed a dramatic increase for regular vaping from 12 percent of students in 2019 to 20 percent last year.

Life Education Trust chief executive John O'Connell said vaping had become an epidemic and the amount of nicotine being consumed was horrendous.

"Smoking with young people had disappeared completely, whereas now we're back with vaping we're back around where we were 20 years ago.

"And I think the real issue is the nicotine and people being just completely unaware of the really high rates of nicotine consumption some of these young people are having.

"It's equivalent to a pack or a pack-and-a-half-a-day in terms of ... the equivalent to cigarettes."

O'Connell said schools were asking the trust for help because they were dealing with young people hooked on nicotine.

"Schools were dealing initially and responding as a behavioural issue and a couple of years ago we were reading in the media about children being stood down and things like that.

"Schools are now realising it's a health dependency issue. There's a reason they're bunking class and hiding in the toilets or whatever, it's because of the craving for the nicotine, and schools are crying out for support at the moment."

New Zealand should follow Australia's lead where vaping was clearly a smoking cessation product and vape fluid was only available on prescription, O'Connell said.

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation had teamed up with the trust to develop Behind the Scenes - a theatrical production on vaping and peer pressure.

The foundation, which set up the Don't Get Sucked In website in 2019, has just released Spotlight on Vaping - a series of videos designed to be conversation starters about vaping.

Foundation chief executive Letitia Harding said New Zealand had been slow to regulate vaping and the message that it was safe had been normalised.

"That means teenagers have that it's safe, safer than smoking must mean that it's safe, but it's not vaping itself does have health issues and especially nicotine vapes which we know the majority are vaping are highly addictive, so that's where we have gone wrong."

Reefton Area School deputy principal Sue Bass said vaping was all pervasive.

"It's huge and it's students from Year 8 probably 12-year-olds up that are vaping and we contact parents and they have no awareness of the health issues or the legal issues because it's illegal for someone under 18 to have vapes or for someone to have supplied them with vapes."

Bass said Life Education Trust's presentation at its school was an eye opener for staff and students.

"I don't think any of us knew the actual nicotine content in vapes. People think they're safe, they think they're just a toy almost."

RNZ spoke to a group of Year 13 students at New Plymouth Girls' High School and most had vaped "in social situations".

"I think it's pretty generally accepted," said one.

"Yeah, I feel like just because everyone else does it, it's something you do," said another.

But not everyone had indulged.

"No, but I have been offered it before," said one of the group.

"No, not unless you count being trapped in small room with someone who won't stop vaping."

The teenagers reckoned most of their peers were not aware vaping might be addictive.

"Everyone kind of thinks oh they'll vape but they're not going to get addicted like it's not them getting addicted when really when you think about they are," said one.

"Everyone is like it's only whatever percentage it is, but I don't think anyone knows how high it is at all," said another.

For others it was a badge of honour.

"It's kind of like bragging rights for some I guess like people are like 'I'm addicted' as a throwaway."

Only one student admitted to vaping regularly.

"When you first start off you don't thing you're going to get addicted and then you start realising it takes a while to realise the power of the nicotine I guess that it has on the brain."

She vaped several times a day.

"[I vape] before school and after school just a couple, yeah it's quite limiting because we can't buy them ourselves so we have lots of breaks."

The usual suspects were purchasing the vapes.

"Friends, friends of friends I guess."

The six-part Spotlight on Vaping video series is now available on the Don't Get Sucked In website.