Posted on August 18, 2023 By Colin
VAPING BY STUDENTS at Australian schools is increasing and is understandably creating great concern for teachers and difficulties with enforcement.
While most Australian schools have clear guidelines on smoking, most do not have a policy on vaping or provide education programs for students or teachers. (here and here)
Schools do not have the resources to police vaping and the current punitive strategies of suspensions, vape detectors, locking toilet doors and toilet raids are not working. We need a fresh approach which acknowledges the reality that kids will vape, whether we approve or not.
This is my 7-point plan for teachers and school staff to deal with school vaping.
The panic about youth vaping is grossly out of proportion to the harm it causes
Other risky teenage behaviours are of much greater concern, such as smoking, binge drinking, illicit drug use and drink driving. There are high rates of bullying, mental illness, suicide attempts, sexual and other violence and car accidents that cause far more harm.
In 2019, 63 Australian teenagers (14-19) died from alcohol. No teen or adult has ever died from vaping nicotine.
A recent assessment of youth drug harms in New Zealand ranked vaping as just about the least harmful form of drug use among young people.
Adults should not over-react to youth vaping as it is likely to be another fad that may soon pass. Youth vaping peaked in the US in 2019 and fell 50% over the next 3 years.
There is widespread misinformation about vaping nicotine in the media and most people believe it is far more harmful than it actually is. Vaping is not risk-free but has only a small fraction of the risk of smoking. The risk of vaping is estimated to be around 5% of the risk of smoking or less by the UK Royal College of Physicians and the England government.
Most vaping by young people is short-term and experimental and the risk of harm is particularly low with this pattern of vaping
Most teens who vape frequently are former or current smokers. For them, vaping may be beneficial and can help to prevent relapse to smoking.
New users who vape too much nicotine can get nausea, dizziness and feel faint. If this occurs, it is best to lie down and wait for it to pass. These symptoms settle quickly and are not serious.
Importantly, there is no evidence that vaping causes kids to take up smoking if they would not have already done so (the so called ‘gateway theory’). In fact, vaping is diverting kids away from smoking and reducing youth smoking rates overall.
Most young people who try vaping DO NOT get addicted to nicotine. Nicotine withdrawal is unpleasant, but not a serious health concern.
There is no evidence that nicotine harms the human adolescent brain. Studies have not found differences in in IQ, educational achievement or cognitive abilities in adults as a result of past smoking, so vaping is very unlikely to have these effects.
There is no evidence that vaping nicotine causes
There is a rare risk of burns and injuries from lithium-battery explosions.
Harms from long-term vaping may emerge over time. Vaping may lead to respiratory or cardiovascular harm, but this is highly likely to be far less than smoking.
This 5-minute video summarises the health risks for teen vapers:
Schools should educate students and staff about vaping, providing honest, evidence-based information
Exaggerating the risks of vaping or providing misinformation to discourage vaping leads to a loss of trust. Kids know when they are being lied to.
My advice on what to say to teens about vaping can be found here. Explain to kids
My short video can be used to educate students about vaping:
Peer pressure is a powerful driver of teen vaping. It can be helpful to teach kids how to refuse the offer of a vape, for example with role plays.
Discussion of the environmental impact of vaping may help. Explain that litter from disposable vapes ends up in landfill where it causes soil and water pollution. Lithium-ion batteries are a fire hazard if discarded into general waste. Vapes should be discarded in battery recycling bins.
Even the best education programs have very limited success in changing youth behaviour
Teenagers are programmed for “sensation-seeking”, and taking risks is an inherent part of this stage of life. Risky behaviours are driven by social (peer influence) and emotional factors, not cognitive factors or knowledge. This reflects the limits of the immature adolescent brain.
Coercive and harsh responses are counterproductive, like a red flag to a bull. Kids resent being lectured to about their behaviour and this can undermine their relationship with adults.
Punitive approaches such as suspensions are not effective and have potentially harmful consequences. such as academic failure, dropouts, violent and anti-social behaviour and smoking, especially for vulnerable students.
Quitting vaping is generally much easier than quitting smoking as vaping is less addictive. However, some students may need advice and support to quit.
Some vapers can stop abruptly. Others prefer to gradually reduce the nicotine content of the vape and try to use it less frequently. Increasing the time between vaping and setting rules for when and where you do and do not vape can help to gradually reduce use.
However, if there is any risk of relapse to smoking it is best to continue vaping
Some people benefit from switching to nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as patches or gums, as a step towards quitting. After quitting, it is a good idea to keep a vape or faster-acting NRT (eg gum or lozenge) at hand for when a sudden trigger causes an urge to smoke.
Further information: Supporting clients who want to stop vaping. National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training, UK. 2022
Each school should have clear guidelines on vaping at school and how it should be managed.
Restrictions on vaping are needed, but a pragmatic, supportive and compassionate approach is more likely to be effective and acceptable
Some students are addicted to nicotine and need to vape at regular intervals during the day. Schools should consider allowing addicted students to take short breaks to vape outside if needed during class hours. Nicotine withdrawal is unpleasant and can be disruptive.
Vaping in school toilets is unacceptable but policing it is almost impossible to enforce and is a strain on sparse school resources.
Although controversial, consideration could be given to allocating a designated outdoor area where students can vape. This should ideally be out of sight, for example behind the toilets. Vaping won't be as appealing to teens if they are allowed to do it.
The designated vaping area could be restricted to students who
This proposal should not be seen as an endorsement of youth vaping, but as a pragmatic solution for the reality of nicotine dependence.
The sale of vapes at schools should be banned and vigorously enforced.
Advice for teachers
Also see my article Fresh approach: A pragmatic 7-point plan to address vaping in schools on the teacher website EducationHQ
Dovetail. Queensland-based youth AOD training organisation
Dovetail is a Queensland-based training organisation which provides training across Queensland including in rural and remote locations. Dovetail has a specific focus on young people who use alcohol and other drugs.
Their advice is
Sheffield City Council
Talk to Frank
Action on Smoking and Health, UK
ASH guidance on developing school policies on vaping, 2022
Mendelsohn CP, Hall W. What are the harms of vaping in young people who have never smoked? International Journal of Drug Policy 2023
Mendelsohn CP. It’s time to change the way we look at youth vaping. Filter, 14 July 2023
Supporting clients who want to stop vaping. National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training, UK. 2022
Mendelsohn CP. Stop Smoking Start Vaping. Free e-book on vaping available for download here.