NSW vaping inquiry hears vaping “beneficial” to young people

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A parliamentary inquiry probing NSW’s vaping regulation and compliance has been urged by an academic to consider the “benefits” of the practice, as he proposed installing “vaping areas” in schools.

Appearing on Friday morning, Colin Mendelsohn – the founding chairman of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association – said efforts to regulate the vaping industry were failing.

Pressed as to how the rising number of young people vaping should be dealt with, Dr Mendelsohn suggested a “compassionate solution” built around harm reduction would be for young people, who are nicotine dependent and suffering withdrawals, and have the permission of their parents, be allowed to vape in agreed areas of school grounds.

“This is not about freely allowing this, this is about accepting that some kids are addicted and will continue to vape no matter what we do, and we want to minimise the harm to them and the harm to their classroom,” he said.

He said vaping was one of the “least harmful” risk behaviours children indulge in, and he personally would “much rather my children or grandchildren vape than smoke or drink drove or used illicit drugs or engaged in sexual violence”.

“Kids are exposed to much greater risks than vaping,” he said.

He said vaping was the best option available to a lot of people who wanted to move away from smoking, but he had seen no evidence that vaping led children to take up smoking cigarettes.

Dr Mendelsohn suggested the best way to eliminate the growing black market for vapes would be to instil a legal, regulated one – similar to how cigarettes and alcohol are currently sold – which would make e-cigarettes available to “those who need it”.

Vapes that do not contain nicotine are currently legal in NSW, but the inquiry heard many e-cigarettes with nicotine being sold without a label advertising the products as such.

Recent changes to the Commonwealth law banned the importation of disposable and non-therapeutic vapes, while vapes prescribed by a doctor or nurse practitioner for someone quitting smoking or managing a nicotine dependence are legal but regulated.

Dr Mendelsohn’s claims to the NSW inquiry were counteracted by health and educational officials, who told parliamentarians of the disturbing impact e-cigarettes were having on young people and the community more broadly.

Rowena Ivers from the RACGP said while there were early indicators suggested nicotine vapes were effective in smoking cessation, the long-term health effects of them had not yet been established.

“The immediate risks of NVPs however are identifiable and include intentional and accidental poisoning; acute nicotine toxicity; injuries, burns and lunch injury; and greater long-term exposure to nicotine than the use of other smoking cessation measures,” the RACGP noted in their submission.

Dr Ivers said when nicotine vapes had been prescribed by doctors, plain packaging like that required for cigarettes should be enforced.

Dr Mendelsohn said smoking cigarettes was the greater health crisis, suggesting long-term vape use was highly likely to be “considerably less harmful” than smoking, and that “no one has ever died from vaping nicotine”

Appearing later in the day, the state’s chief cancer officer Tracey O’Brien said vaping was such a new phenomenon there was not yet the evidence to show just how deadly vapes were.

“There is no definitive evidence that vaping causes cancer, but I’d take caution at putting a full stop after that sentence, simply because we don’t have the duration of time to be able to prove that,” Dr O’Brien said.

“Tobacco smoking took decades to prove that it caused cancer. It wasn’t until the 1960s that we knew that tobacco smoking caused lung cancer, and then several decades after that we now know that 15 other cancers apart from lung cancer are caused by tobacco smoking as well.

“We do know that there are 200 odd chemicals contained with vapes, and many of those chemicals are known to cause cancer.

“I have concerns about the health impacts in terms of cancer of the products that are currently being exposed to young people.”

Education officials told parliamentarians they were concerned about the impacts vaping was having on the state’s students from both a behavioural and a health perspective.

Martin Graham from the department of education said vaping was a “rapidly growing health issue”.

“It’s certainly a health issue that’s been identified in all schools and we’re absolutely approaching it as a health response,” he said.

“So if we do take any kind of action … the direction is not just about the education and why you shouldn’t vape, it’s also about moving on them on to cessation, like helping them to get off that and that’s a really important part of the health response.

Chief health officer Kerry Chant said she was concerned by the impact vaping had on young people’s mental health in particular.

“We’re concerned around that the fact that if someone is anxious or, or depressed or using it for any other reasons, then it can actually exacerbate those conditions,” she said.

“And you get this sort of cycle where the young person is vaping to relieve stress, but then … they become addicted to the nicotine and then when they try and stop the nicotine, they actually get all the symptoms of anxiety and feeling anxious.”