The 31st of May is World No Tobacco Day (WNTD). Since 1987 the World Health Organization (WHO) has promoted WNTD as a time for communities to focus on the risks linked to tobacco use. In 2020, they are asking us to recognise the dangers tobacco poses to young people, with the theme: Protecting youth from industry manipulation and preventing them from tobacco and nicotine use.
If you’re a parent or care for a young person and you’re concerned they may be vulnerable to tobacco use, now is a good time to start a conversation. First, you need the facts.
The tobacco industry targets youth through product design and advertising. The WHO urges us to make essential changes to prevent the recruitment of a new generation of smokers.
What do the statistics say?
- Most adults who smoke started smoking when they were teenagers. To end the tobacco epidemic, we need to prevent tobacco use among teenagers.
- Tobacco is the leading cause of death World Wide for men.
- Secondhand smoke causes many diseases and symptoms of illness. There is no level of exposure to secondhand smoke that is free of risk.
- Whilst numbers were declining in previous years, an estimated 14,503 Australian school children became regular smokers in 2017.
The World Health Organisation is using youth in its marketing to call out the tobacco industry’s own youth-oriented marketing.
So, how do tobacco companies target kids? Vaping.
The tobacco industry has taken a new direction with the emergence of the e-cigarette or ‘vaping’ industry. If you’re not familiar, e-cigarettes are handheld battery-powered devices that vaporize ‘e-liquid’, which typically contains nicotine. E-cigarettes were originally established to help smokers quit the habit — and for many adult smokers, they really have helped.
E-cigarettes are legal and widely available in Australia, but nicotine e-liquid is currently illegal without a prescription. However, there is a thriving black market and it may actually be easier to buy for underage users than legal cigarettes.
While e-cigarette use — ‘vaping’ — was widely acknowledged to be safer than smoking, there have been growing health concerns as it becomes more popular. Users may experience lung and respiratory disease. In 2019, vapers across the United States experienced an outbreak of severe lung injury related to chemicals found in poorly regulated e-liquid products.
Despite the potential health concerns, e-cigarettes have become increasingly popular, particularly with young people, and big tobacco companies have invested heavily in the industry — they are recruiting the next generation of nicotine users.
Why do teens vape?
There is no single reason why kids might take up vaping, but one big reason is: they think it looks cool. A study of tweets about vaping found that 37 per cent cited ‘social image’ as the main reason they took up vaping.
A sub-culture has evolved around e-cigarette use. Vaping lounges are opening up around cities, and new generations of e-cigarette devices are becoming more and more customizable, allowing young people to use them as a way of expressing their personality. Fruity-flavoured sweet-smelling products are available that don’t have the same social stigma as a cloud of cigarette smoke.
E-cigarettes have so successfully targeted young people that a recent study showed that 13% of teenagers aged between 12 and 17 in Australia had already tried e-cigarettes.
What should I do about it?
If you know a young person who is or might be smoking or vaping and you are concerned for their health, always start by having a conversation with them. Find out what they know about what they are doing — some young people don’t even realise e-cigarettes contain nicotine — and listen to how vaping is important to them. From there, you can understand how to help them make informed choices about the risks they are taking with their health.
If you are finding it challenging to have a conversation with someone about smoking or vaping, consider calling the Quitline or getting in touch with a trusted friend or support network to help you decide how to approach them and figure out your next steps.