‘Instead of suspending us, help us quit’: Teens speak out on vaping

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The state’s advocate for children and young people has advised against installing tens of thousands of vape detectors into school bathrooms, as nicotine-addicted teenagers plead to be supported to quit rather than suspended from school.

Health experts, researchers, principals, teachers and students will meet Deputy Premier and Education Minister Prue Car on Thursday, to discuss the impact of vaping on school communities.

Students say they want support to quit vaping, rather than to be punished. Credit: iStock

Research by the NSW Advocate for Children and Young People Zoë Robinson published ahead of the roundtable found teenagers were being deterred from seeking support to quit vaping by punitive school policies.

The report spoke to more than 260 students in NSW high schools where vaping had been an issue. It made 11 recommendations, including that the education department should abandon a plan to install 40,000 vape detectors in school toilets, which it labelled “not a useful approach to prevent young people from taking up vaping or to prevent them from vaping on school grounds”.

Robinson said it was important for responses to vaping in schools to be student-led. She said a common theme from the discussions was that students wished nicotine vapes were not as easy to access, and needed help to quit without fear of punishment.

“What the young people have said to us, is that adults should have done better, earlier,” she said.

Last week, Australian Border Force seized more than 35 tonnes of vaping products, with a sale value of $11 million. But health advocates have long warned that lax enforcement of rules restricting the sale of nicotine vapes means teenagers can easily access them at convenience stores and from resellers on social media.

Data from the NSW Population Health Survey shows vaping has skyrocketed in popularity among people aged 16 to 24, with 16.5 per cent of the age group identifying as a current user of vapes in 2021-22. Cancer Council NSW’s Generation Vape survey of teenagers aged 14 to 17 suggests a third have tried a vape, half of whom had never previously smoked a cigarette.

In June, six young people presented to NSW emergency departments with symptoms including seizures, loss of consciousness and vomiting, after using vapes purchased on Snapchat. Department incident logs show state schools have dealt with several cases of students selling vapes, with children as young as primary school age caught vaping.

“Some primary school kids are vaping, I know kids in year 6 and even some as young as in year 3 who have been caught vaping.”

Students told the advocate they vaped to help ease anxiety, and were scared to come forward for help to quit because they did not want to get in trouble.

“Instead of suspending us, help us quit,” one told the advocate. Students expressed strong preferences for online support, or support from peers or younger role models rather than teachers.

“If young people want to quit it’s hard, because you have to do it alone, you can’t go to your parents or teachers to talk about it,” another student said.

Robinson said policies such as suspending students, locking bathrooms or introducing vape detectors, as has already occurred at some private schools, did not deal with the cause of students’ vaping.

Promised by NSW Labor at the state election, the department put out a tender seeking a company to supply 40,000 vaping detection devices, which would have also picked up students smoking or vaping cannabis products.

“Responding to this in a punitive way does not address that they are telling us they are using these vapes to soothe, to relieve anxiety,” Robinson said.

“If the department is going to make an investment [in vape detectors], and students are saying it is not going to work, we need to ask how we can use that money to do something different.”

Alecia Brooks, chair of Cancer Council NSW’s Tobacco Issues Committee, said it also did not support the introduction of vape detectors to school bathrooms.

“While [the education department] has a role to play in preventing uptake and use of e-cigarettes among young people, the root of the problem lies outside the school gates,” she said.

“The actions taken by schools are not enough alone to combat this issue, and vaping must be primarily addressed by reducing supply and access to e-cigarettes.”

In August, Car said she was “working [the detectors program] through with schools where we know it’s a particular problem”.

Car declined to comment to The Sun-Herald this week on the progress of the program, which is expected to be discussed at the upcoming roundtable.

“The NSW government is delivering its election commitment to convene a roundtable of health experts, educators and students to discuss a range of issues,” she said.

“After we hear from these experts, we can proceed with an informed, evidenced-based approach to tackle the scourge of vaping in schools.”

Robinson and representatives from the Cancer Council will both attend on Thursday.

In addition to the roundtable, the NSW Legislative Assembly has also commissioned an inquiry into e-cigarette regulation and compliance in the state, to be heard at a date yet to be specified.

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