Students ripping down vape detectors in schools as New Zealand battles 'teen vaping epidemic'

Numerous studies have revealed the continued increase of vaping in schools.
Numerous studies have revealed the continued increase of vaping in schools. Photo credit: The Project

Anna Sargent for RNZ

Schools are putting vaping detectors in bathrooms and students are ripping them down as New Zealand battles what the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation calls a teen vaping epidemic.

"You would walk into the bathrooms and open the door and there'd be just a cloud of smoke come out," a former Christchurch secondary school student recalls.

Lucy* said when she went to the bathroom it would be filled with strong fruity smells of flavoured vape juices and loud crackling sounds, as schoolmates took deep vape puffs.

She believed over half of each year group at her school were and are still vaping in bathrooms. That was half the school hiding from teachers during the day.

Vaping (e-cigarettes) has hit secondary schools up and down the country.

Every break, and in between, students flock to bathrooms to suck on electronic devices and inhale flavoured nicotine.

Numerous studies have revealed the continued increase of vaping in schools.

The largest New Zealand survey on youth vaping was run by the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation with the New Zealand Secondary Principals' Association (SPANZ) in November last year.

It reported that one in five secondary school students were vaping every day.

The foundation, on its website, said the survey was "carried out in response to growing concerns raised by parents, teachers and schools around the epidemic of teen vaping".

Over 19,000 students in years 9-13 were asked about their vaping and smoking habits in the survey, and participation was anonymous and voluntary.

Under New Zealand law, under 18s cannot buy vapes, and vaping is banned on school grounds.

SPANZ president Vaughan Couillault said all schools from all socio-economic areas were facing the same problems with vaping, "because it seems to be the new cool thing to do".

"No matter what school you are in, you have got vaping problems to deal with."

Couillault said although cigarette smoking among students had taken a big hit, it had been replaced by a bigger problem of vaping.

Talk to teens, and they say the vaping wave is predominantly happening out of sight.

Zara*, 17, took up vaping in Year 11. She said it was very popular at her North Island girls' secondary school, and students did it in the toilet blocks to hide from teachers.

She tried vaping because all her friends were doing it, and the habit stuck.

She said while initially just older students vaped, now Year 9 pupils (13-14 years) were increasingly picking it up.

A former head girl at a Wellington high school Sally*, who left school last year, said the vaping problem got "drastically" worse in her last two years at school. She said everyone was doing it in the bathrooms - including herself.

"I was having a really hard time, I was stressed, and it was one of those things. You do lean on these bad habits."

Sally said it was a well-known problem in the school, and as the head girl she knew senior teaching staff felt like they had no control over it.

"They tried not to let people leave class together to go to the toilet... but it wasn't really addressed because it was something that happened out of sight."

Teens say the vaping wave is predominantly happening out of sight.
Teens say the vaping wave is predominantly happening out of sight. Photo credit: Getty Images

Some schools are taking extreme measures to try and catch and stop vapers.

These include installing high-tech hidden detectors in bathrooms. The detectors worked by picking up the chemicals released by vaping, sending a silent alarm to staff.

Couillault, also the principal of Papatoetoe High School, said the detectors were in an experimental phase.

"Some of us have put them in, I haven't yet. I have some colleagues that have in a couple of places to see how it works."

Feedback had been mixed.

"In some cases it has worked pretty well and in other cases the devices have been removed by students."

Couillault said cost was also an issue.

"When you are talking about a big school with 1500-3000 kids that is quite a few toilets. You could blow $100,000 dollars on vape detectors without even blinking."

How dangerous is vaping to young people?

University of Auckland associate professor Kelly Burrowes said it could be 10-20 years before it was truly known how dangerous vaping was.

Burrowes, a researcher at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, said while the long-term effects of vaping were unknown, the amount of chemicals in the e-liquids vapers was concerning.

"In our work we have found 140 different flavouring chemicals in just three different vape juice flavours, and no-one knows what those flavouring chemicals do to someone."

However, she pointed to inflammation as almost certain.

In an opinion piece on vaping effects published on the university website in September, Burrowes wrote: "Anything you breathe into your lungs that's not just clean air is going to create some inflammatory response, because that's your body's normal response to any sort of foreign body".

Youth cigarette smoking rates have reportedly dropped significantly. An ASH (Action for Smokefree 2025) 2021 survey of Year 10 students found daily smoking had dropped from 2 percent in 2019 to 1.3 percent in 2021.

But Burrowes said looking at vaping alongside this apparent good news showed the overall picture was actually worsening.

"When you look at how fast vaping rates are going up, it means the overall nicotine use is on the rise.

"Vaping as opposed to smoking is cool and it's easy to get hold of, it tastes good, and maybe a lot of young people don't know what the harm will be from it."

The rise in vaping was seeing teens - who had never smoked cigarettes before - picking up high nicotine vapes and becoming addicted.

Mark*, 17, who attended a secondary school in Christchurch, said students he knew who vaped had never smoked before. He believed the trend of vaping among teens was not linked to smoking.

Sally, who tried smoking in her last year of high school, believed vaping could make young people who had not smoked more likely to try it.

"I don't think I would have ever smoked a cigarette if I hadn't vaped first. It almost feels like if you vape, then smoke, - 'Oh it's not really that much worse'."

*Names have been changed for privacy.