1 in 5 secondary students vaping daily, survey finds

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

The largest New Zealand survey on youth vaping has revealed one in five secondary school students are using e-cigarettes daily.

The survey conducted by the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation and the Secondary Principals’ Association was responded to by over 19,000 students from 283 schools, with high decile schools making up 42 per cent of the responses.

“Regardless of what the decile is of your school, this is a problem for the youth in our country at the moment and we've got to do something to put the right info in front of the families and youth, so they know the consequences of what they’re doing,” Rotorua Girls' High School principal Sarah Davis said.

More than one in four students reported vaping in the past week when the survey was carried out last term.

“Many people in the survey, many young people, admitted to feeling addicted and being distressed by it,” report co-author and paediatric respiratory physician Associate Professor Philip Pattemore said.

Of those who reported vaping in the past week, the majority said a very high nicotine dosage was used in their device, at 24mg to 50 mg, but it’s unknown how quickly this amount was consumed.

In comparison, a person smoking a packet of 20 cigarettes would inhale 22 to 36mg of nicotine, the report states, adding that while cigarette nicotine is bitter and unpalatable in large amounts, vape nicotine salt formulas mask the harshness of the high concentration of the substance.

Chair of ASH Robert Beaglehole shared his insight into the study with TVNZ1’s Breakfast.

Over half of those who reported vaping said they are using e-cigarettes more frequently and at higher nicotine dosages than last year.

"Overall, 63 per cent of those who had vaped in the last week reported that they felt addicted to their vaping," the report states.

"In our study, almost half of those who had vaped within the last week reported that they thought vaping was having an effect on their health.

“Nicotine has been shown to affect the forming of new connections in the brain that happen during adolescence, especially in early adolescence,” Pattemore said.

Vaping also exposes users to toxic substances, at a lower level than smoking, but the long-term impact remains unclear.

Increased vaping was reported in lower decile schools.

"Concerningly, 14.6 per cent of students surveyed reported smoking one or more traditional cigarettes in the last seven days, again a much higher prevalence than previously reported," the report states.

"Almost all (98 per cent) of those who reported smoking in the last week also reported vaping in the last week."

The findings suggest the rate of vaping in high school students has significantly increased from 2019 to 2021 and a significant number of students are addicted to nicotine, the report states.

Action for Smokefree 2025 director Deborah Hart says the increase in youth vaping is the result of the Government not putting regulations in place sooner.

“It only regulated vaping late last year, and we're hoping that the regulated environment that we now have will deal to youth vaping whilst we optimise it to help people to stop smoking,” Hart said.

Associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall said in a statement the Government’s committed to, "protecting our tamariki, young people and non-smokers from the risks associated with smoking and vaping products".

She said regulation was complex, with an aim to make vaping accessible for smokers making the switch but not accessible to young people.

"Public Health Units and the Ministry of Health are working together to improve compliance amongst businesses, and carry out enforcement," Verrall said.

The Asthma and Respiratory Foundation is calling for further regulatory action, including raising the legal purchasing age from 18 to 21, banning advertising at the front of dairies and vape shops and preventing the sale of products within a one kilometre radius of schools.

Another recommendation is for New Zealand to adopt the European Union’s restriction of 20mg being the maximum nicotine available.

A Government spokesperson said that’s the limit for regular or ‘freebase’ nicotine liquid but the limit for liquid with nicotine salts is higher, "reflecting the need for smokers to have access to nicotine strengths that will support them to switch".

"These limits were consistent with the Ministry’s expert advisory group recommendations and were part of the public consultation process," the spokesperson said.

Davis is calling for education resources that can be shared with students.

“We find that the info that comes with vapes is just not clear enough in terms of what the risks are that are associated with it.

“We've lacked resources, we’ve lacked a bit of detail on what vaping does, we know that it’s not good, but we haven’t always had the resources we need to give students; what they should actually be aware of if they’re going to start vaping,” she said.

She said principals describe vaping as the "alco-pops of the cigarette industry".

“It's almost been tailored towards youth as something that’s appealing and it’s seen as accessible and you can have an e-cigarette in a more discreet way,” Davis said.

She said that makes vaping a challenge for schools to monitor.

“I’m not sure that any school has particularly got on top of how to have a robust system in place so that students don’t smoke e-cigarettes but it's something that I’m really, really certain other principals in all the schools in our country are really dealing with.”

Davis welcomes the survey findings.

“It’s a really clear line of research that we can start to now put out into our communities as a counter-argument, because there has been quite a normalised approach to e-cigarettes and almost a sense that they’re not going to be anything further down the line that causes the problem,” she said.

The Ministry of Health told 1News it’s planning to fund a programme discouraging youth from vaping.