Vaping is a silent epidemic that threatens the health and wellbeing of Australian teens, say Griffith University experts in social marketing.

Behavioural architect Dr Timo Dietrich says the tobacco industry has created a far superior product to cigarettes and one substantially more enticing to young people than cigarettes ever were.

“We must question some of the statistics that suggest low vaping use amongst Australian teenagers. Our data tells a different story,” Dietrich said.

“Between 2015-2019, e-cigarette use by young people increased by 72% in the US, 150% in Canada and 96% in Australia.

“Talking to thousands of teachers, students and parents, we know that vaping is a real problem.

“Vape pens are slick. They smell good. They come in funky shapes, sizes and colours. It’s so different from what smoking was.

“This is tempting an entire generation of young people to start an unhealthy new habit.”

Dietrich and his colleagues at Griffith Business School’s Social Marketing @ Griffith have been in the trenches with teachers and students around the use of drugs and alcohol for years.

Their Blurred Minds initiative started a decade ago with the aim to offer engaging alcohol and drug education resources to change Australia’s culture towards alcohol and drugs.

The Blurred Minds Academy is its newest gamified education product and now available to all Australian high schools.

The Blurred Minds Academy offers a range of evidence-based alcohol and drug education modules, curriculum aligned assessment options including marking rubrics, and built-in reporting tools to assess each student’s progress, helping engage students with relevant and meaningful education to change their beliefs and behaviours.

The new module around vaping aims to start conversations with teens about a problem growing by the day.

“While companies cannot advertise vapes and vaping products in Australia, that really means very little when the internet is full of positive message surrounding vaping,” Dr Dietrich explained.

Research has shown that 63% of e-cigarette content on tik tok portrays vaping in a positive light. They also found that a quarter of all vape videos include people that are younger than 18.

“Vapes look fun and what is smoked tastes and smells often like candy but as with any ‘new’ thing, not everyone has the know-how yet.”

He said there was no clear answer yet as to how vaping affects a teenager’s brain and body.

“Some of the negative impacts will likely depend on whether they vape liquids with or without nicotine, whether they vape cannabis, or other herbs.

“The liquids used in e-cigarettes may contain a range of toxic and relatively unknown chemicals and even those labelled ‘nicotine free’ may still include nicotine.

“A study found that 50% of 65 Australian e-liquids advertised as best-sellers contained chemicals used in pesticides and disinfectants manufacturing, some also contained nicotine.

“Most concerningly, ingredient lists are very basic, don’t provide a lot of information and some overseas manufacturers don’t even meet Australian standards, so you don’t actually know what you are inhaling through your lungs.”

Dr Dietrich says more research is needed, but until then, better education is the key.

“Health education teachers and parents are craving better guidance around the consequences of vaping,” he said.

“As part of the Blurred Minds program we talk a lot to Health and Physical Education teachers, and we specialise in creating gamified resources to engage students when it comes to alcohol and drug education.

“We need equally engaging resources to talk to kids about the risks and dangers of vaping because to date there has not been enough out there that speaks to teenagers at eye level and in their language.”

Thousands of students and teachers have engaged with the newest Blurred Minds Academy resources to date and students who have completed the program showed:

  • Increased knowledge about alcohol and drugs
  • More negative beliefs about alcohol
  • More negative beliefs around marijuana
  • Increased capability to refuse alcohol.