Teenagers are at the centre of the conversation about vaping, but aren’t often heard from directly. Caspar Levack, a year 11 high schooler in Wellington, gets it from the horse’s mouth.
Emma, 15, has been vaping for more than a year now. She tries hard to do well in school, isn’t rebellious, gets Excellence grades on most NCEA assignments and studies a few hours a day. Her favourite class is Māori and she’s passionate about continuing with the language. “I’m worried that I might be a nerd,” she jokes. “My friends were joking about carbon ion bonds recently, and I’m worried that I got it.”
Emma first vaped after a friend offered her a puff. She was in a “dark place” at the time, and vaping made her feel a little bit relaxed. Her favourite flavour is watermelon ice. She originally didn’t consider herself addicted but now does, currently vaping multiple times a day. “I tried to throw out all my vapes,” she tells me, “but it didn’t really work out.” She adds that her friends would offer her theirs, and it was difficult to say no. She felt uneasy about using resources to help her stop as she feels really embarrassed about the habit. She isn’t concerned for her health at the moment, but says she’s worried about how it would be affected in the future.
Leo, 15, is more rebellious. He often doesn’t show up to classes and doesn’t really care about his grades. He’s more interested in having a good time and taking it easy. His favourite flavour is blue raspberry. He shares a similar story to Emma: “all my friends were [vaping] when I started.” He has been vaping on and off for about two years, considers himself addicted, and vapes many times a day. He has tried to quit seven times – even trying nicotine tablets to reduce cravings – but still struggles with his habit. “I think I’d like to quit in the future,” he says, “maybe when I turn 18.” He isn’t aware of any health risks posed by vapes.
I also speak to Ava, 16, who wants to do well at school and gets along well with her teachers but doesn’t like to put huge amounts of effort into her work. She doesn’t consider herself addicted but is nevertheless vaping daily. She started vaping because her friends were doing it and she felt it was all in good fun. When I ask if she thinks it will to have any effect on her health, she responds, “oh, absolutely”.
We are well past the point of this being a fad. A 2021 survey from the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation New Zealand (ARFNZ) found that 26 percent of high school students surveyed had vaped in the past week, and 75 percent of those vaping did it daily or several times a day. As a high school student myself, I often see kids vape and hear them talk about it persistently, despite being banned at my school and illegal on school grounds. Teachers have a hard time enforcing this rule because, at my school, students are allowed to leave the school grounds. Even within the school gates there are multiple locations, like behind the main hall, where groups of vapers awkwardly huddle next to a dumpster with clouds of vapour emanating from them.
As long as you’re about their age, vaping students will be honest about it if you ask. The ARFNZ survey seems accurate for my school. So, what are these teenagers’ thoughts and experiences when it comes to vaping?
As I’ve mentioned, there are varying levels of health concerns among the vapers I interview; some even think it’s harmless. In fact vapes often contain many of the same harmful chemicals found in traditional cigarettes, albeit in smaller doses. Formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acrolein and acetone have all been found in vapes, and at high enough concentrations, can cause cardiovascular disease and pulmonary disease. Because vapes and e-cigarettes have only been on the market for a few years, we don’t have a full understanding of the long-term health risks associated with them.
Almost everyone I speak to agrees the laws around vapes make them too accessible to minors. Emma says it’s ridiculous that people her age can buy vapes in stores, where they’re unlikely to be asked for ID, and Leo suggests a system for supporting addicted teens needs to be set up. One student I talk to sheepishly confides that while trying to quit vaping, they smoked a traditional cigarette to deal with their nicotine cravings.
Australia recently passed sweeping restrictions on vapes to make them more inaccessible to teens, and Aotearoa seems to be following suit. Last month, minister of health Ayesha Verrall announced changes to our vaping laws, including requiring flavour names to be generic, prohibiting new vape shops from opening within 300 metres of a school or marae, and banning disposable vapes. However, this reform is not as radical as Australia’s new policy and multiple groups, including ARFNZ and the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, are suggesting that more drastic measures are needed.
The young people I speak to feel New Zealand’s law change won’t be comprehensive enough to stop teens from vaping. Emma tells me banning disposable vapes could become problematic, as buying a $50 reusable vape is more of a commitment than a cheap disposable option – people trying to quit won’t want to ditch their expensive vapes. “This is a step in the right direction,” she adds, “but I’m unsure whether it’s the correct step.” My interviewees agree making flavour names more generic makes sense, although Emma says, “that’s so sad, I love my fun flavour names!”
Better law changes, according to the teenagers I speak to, would require IDs for purchase or suppress the number of stores selling vapes. There’s a sense, too, that most anti-vape campaigns are designed by adults and shame or belittle vaping, which makes young people feel bad about themselves, not vaping. A campaign designed by young people that doesn’t embarrass or shame people could be very effective, Emma adds.