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To vape or not to vape... Have you been sucked in?

young adult woman vaping

Some of my work as a psychologist is in schools, which I thoroughly enjoy. The students who are referred to me either tend to have concerned or frustrated pastoral care and/or teaching staff to the extent it is hoped I can wave my magic wand and by doing so solve whatever has caused the concern or frustration.

Note… I am lacking a magic wand. The only magic I have ever achieved is to consult the research literature to see what has been found to be successful in similar situations to the ones which have caused the abovementioned concern or frustration.

One situation I consulted the research literature on in relation to these students is vaping. This came about because there seemed to be an increase in students of intermediate and secondary school age referred to me as they had been caught vaping at school. Cue the expectation for my magic wand! I undertook the Heart Foundation’s Smoking Cessation training in 2012 and their refresher course in 2015 so feel confident in supporting smokers to make changes in their smoking behaviours. But vaping? I knew nothing about it.

Vaping in New Zealand Secondary Schools

Ball, Fleming, Drayton, Sutcliffe, Lewycka and Clark (2021) looked at the vaping behaviour of New Zealand secondary school students. They found that, when compared with tobacco smoking, vaping was 2–3 times more common, regardless of a student’s socio-economic status. 10% of students surveyed reported vaping at least monthly, and 6% at least weekly. In comparison, 4% of tobacco smokers reported they smoked at least monthly with 2% at least weekly. More than 80% of students who had ever vaped reported they did not smoke cigarettes when they first vaped, and 49% of regular vapers had never smoked. Ball, Fleming and Drayton et al concluded that a considerable number of New Zealand adolescents were using nicotine-containing vaping products regularly.

This informed my pathway moving forward. I now knew that vaping was quite “the thing.” But what was vaping?

Facts about Vaping

Here are some facts I have learned. These came from sites listed in the reference section below.

  • Vaping equipment was invented in 2003 by a Chinese pharmacist to support smoking cessation.

  • The difference between smoking and vaping is that smoking delivers nicotine by burning tobacco, which is known to cause smoking-related illnesses, whereas vaping delivers nicotine by heating a liquid in a less harmful way.

  • In smoking, the amount of nicotine in cigarettes is generally fixed. How much you get depends on how you smoke. In vaping, the amount of nicotine depends on the strength of e-liquid you choose, and how you vape.

  • E-liquid typically contains propylene glycol (PG), vegetable glycerine (VG), plus flavours and the option of nicotine. Flavours are a personal preference and nicotine is the addictive part that comes in various strengths.

So, that is vaping in a nutshell. The question is, why are so many young people taking up vaping?

Is Marketing to Blame?

It appears young people are taking up vaping predominantly due to marketing - the process of identifying customer needs and determining how best to meet those needs.

From what I have read, it appears that the intentional marketing of vaping as a “life style choice” and vaping equipment as a “lifestyle product” has caught the eye of impressionable young people worldwide.

Vaping flavours are named for their appeal to young people, such as “unicorn milk,” “gummy strawberry” and “salty bubble world candy berry apple.” Limited edition flavours are marketed for seasons and events, such as “harvest blend,” “summer fusion” and for Halloween: “sticky sweets.” Colourful packaging further emphasises the appeal of these vaping flavours.

Vape manufacturers sponsor events such as the annual Gisborne Rhythm and Vines festival. This adds to their exposure and consequently their appeal.

In addition, vaping devices are shaped as USB sticks that can be charged through ports in computers, TVs, game consoles and car chargers. This link to technology appeals to today’s young people who have been raised in a technological age.

No wonder I was seeing young people who were vaping.

What Can Be Done?

It turned out I was not the only person concerned. In 2020, Public Health professor at the University of Otago, Janet Hoek, spoke to Stuff journalist Nikki MacDonald about her concerns of the "aggressive and very widespread marketing" of vaping products to young people. Janet called the vaping industry a "wild west" which was making the most of its lack of regulation at the time. Janet stated, "They're clearly targeting it as a lifestyle, recreational activity and are trying to appeal to young people." (MacDonald, 26/09/2020).

Due to the work of Janet and others also failing to succumb to the appeal of vaping, the passing of New Zealand’s Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Vaping) Amendment Act 2020 on November 11, 2020, meant that vaping became prohibited in public places including schools and early childcare centres. Advertising of vaping products was prohibited from November 25, 2020. From May 25, 2021, in addition to the existing requirement for public places to display ‘no smoking’ signs, they were also required to display ‘no vaping’ signs.

The sale of vaping products to those under the age of eighteen was banned under this act. The sale of the many exotic-sounding flavours was limited to specialist stores and online retailers. Dairies, supermarkets and petrol stations became only able to sell mint, menthol and tobacco flavoured vaping products.

In light of the number of vaping students sent to see me in 2021, this does not, in my mind, seem sufficient action to curb increasing vaping rates in young people. Specialist stores continue to be allowed to offer loyalty schemes and discounts. Tobacco companies have branched out into manufacturing vaping products. Young people continue to vape in increasing numbers.

The implication for the health of our young people is that while vaping is less harmful than smoking, it is not harmless. Young people need to know the facts about vaping and the potential risks associated with vaping for their health and well-being. Public health action is needed to support young non-smokers to remain smokefree and vape free.

I was relieved to read that a new health promotion programme from the Ministry of Health, projected to begin in March 2022, will focus on supporting young people to make the decision not to vape. I look forward to finding out more about this.

Meanwhile, if you are wanting to support young people to stop vaping, please treat vaping as any other substance that would be included in the provision of education and information on harm reduction from alcohol and other drugs. As vaping products contain nicotine, it is appropriate to use the same activities and actions you would for supporting the reduction of alcohol and other drug related harm, by swapping the words “alcohol and/or other drugs” for vaping.

Let’s stop our young people from being sucked in!


Ball, J., Fleming, T., Drayton, B., Sutcliffe, K., Lewycka, S., & Clark, T. C. (2021). New Zealand Youth19 survey: Vaping has wider appeal than smoking in secondary school students, and most use nicotine‐containing e‐cigarettes. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 45(6), 546-553.

MacDonald, N. (2020). Youth vaping - worrying epidemic or divisive distraction from smokefree goals? Stuff National News Online

You may also like to look at the following New Zealand websites:

Written by

Cathy Cooper

Psychologist (NZPB Reg. MNZPsS, MNZIEDP)


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