Canberra teenagers have been warned about being approached to buy e-cigarettes with one school principal saying vaping rates had been "steeply rising".
Youth centres, doctors and researchers have also reported an increase in young people vaping.
Merici College principal Anna Masters wrote to parents in March encouraging them to alert police if their children had been approached by e-cigarette sellers.
"The school has become aware that a number of individuals have been approaching some of our students on social media in the attempt to sell vapes devices to them," Ms Masters said.
"The school has further concerns that those individuals selling vape devices to under-18s may also have the capacity to sell other illegal materials. Communicating with such individuals presents a significant ongoing risk for our young people."
Ms Masters' letter, seen by the Sunday Canberra Times, encouraged parents to alert the school and authorities if their daughter had been approached.
"If you have concerns that your daughter may have been involved in any contact with those selling e-cigarettes, please make contact with the relevant house coordinator to enable support and education processes with your daughter and family to occur," she said.
"As ever, we seek to work in partnership with you to support our young women as they grow to make wise and safe choices in a complex world."
A 2017 survey found one in 10 ACT secondary students had tried e-cigarettes. Last year's planned survey was delayed by COVID-19 until 2022.
'Easier to get a vape'
Canberra apprentice Harley, who requested his surname not to be published, said he learnt about vaping in high school.
He started vaping legally this year at 18 to help him quit smoking.
He said he knew of others around his age who vaped and said that for adolescents, it was "easier to get a vape than to get a pack of smokes".
"There are a lot of people who resell them to young people on social media. They probably source it from cheap overseas suppliers," he said.
Harley said he vaped on a "reasonably constant basis".
"Whenever I had a craving [for smoking], I'd go have a little bit of a vape then tried to ease off it," he said.
"I did it a couple of times a day.
"It's not the right thing to do. It's not good for you at all. There are heaps of negatives."
Hayden Page, manager of child and family services at Woden Youth Centre, said he had seen an increase in the use of e-cigarettes since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
It seems it's becoming a trend and an alternative for smoking for young people.- Hayden Page, manager of child and family services at Woden Youth Centre
"When we started to run programs again after closing down during COVID, we did notice a lot more youths accessing the centre who were were vaping or smoking," Mr Page said.
"It seems it's becoming a trend and an alternative for smoking for young people."
Mr Page said e-cigarettes were a lot cheaper and more accessible, reasons the youth centre's clients cited for vaping.
"There isn't as much of a negative spin on e-cigarettes as there is on tobacco cigarettes. It's a lot more appealing to young people with the different flavours and it's being marketed as an alternative to smoking."
Mr Page said that while the centre's approach to helping young people and their families was to inform them as best as they could, it seemed educational resources and information were lacking.
"It'd be good for us to refer someone to a place like Cancer Council for vaping. They may be in existence but not as common or well known," he said.
"If a young person needs help, there are always services like us around willing to listen to them."
Medical authorities urge teens to stop
Australian Medical Association ACT president Dr Antonio Di Dio said there had been an increase in e-cigarette usage among young people, but it was "equally stupid to vape at any age".
"Parents and school staff are often the last people to find out," he said.
Dr Di Dio said up to 6000 different toxic chemicals enter the body from vaping that can lead to "catastrophic and fatal results".
"There can be terrible lung diseases from vaping and various parts of the body can be affected by nicotine use," he said.
"Some of those thousands of chemicals have not been clinically tested in trials, we may not find out what the effects are for years."
Dr Di Dio said he believed an uptake in vaping was driven by the "aggressive marketing" approach by tobacco companies.
"This is a narrative that happened in the '60s and '70s where private manufacturers of tobacco products marketed heavily and it took a generation to change that," he said.
"Marketing from manufacturers portrays the notion that vaping is somehow safer than smoking so it must be safe. This is an incredibly misleading assertion."
An ACT Health spokesman said the territory supported a national approach to e-cigarette regulation, which makes protecting children and young people the primary focus and goal.
The spokesman said ACT Health had also made information available for schools on the health impacts of e-cigarettes.
'Steeply increasing' among students
Numerous public schools' parents and citizen groups were contacted but did not respond or declined to comment.
ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Associations spokeswoman Janelle Kennard said vaping had not been raised as an issue by any of the council's members.
A spokeswoman from Orana Steiner School said vaping and MDMA use had overtaken alcohol and cannabis as the more common drugs used by students off school grounds.
The spokeswoman said the school was fortunate to have not had any reported incidents of vaping on grounds, but was aware of some students vaping at weekends and after school hours.
"It has been evident in the ACT that the general trend with young people's use of vaping on school grounds has been increasing," the spokeswoman said.
"This began in 2019, and has been steeply increasing. This includes at and outside school."
The spokeswoman said e-cigarettes had been successfully marketed to children and young adults.
"They don't feel there is any danger or repercussions," she said.
"It's hard to get caught, not as obvious as the smell of smoking. It's easy to get and seems harmless due to the variety of flavours."
She said that when the school began education programs about e-cigarettes and other drugs in 2019, they "found the students were very surprised about the negative impacts".
"We would like the government to have stricter boundaries on the use of these products and have more knowledge for parents" she said.
The spokeswoman said the school was considering introducing additional information to its students, including a series similar to one by Alcohol Tobacco and other Drug Association ACT.
Tobacco firms' diversification strategy: researcher
Dr Michelle Jongenelis, senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne's centre for behaviour change, said the rapid increase in young people using e-cigarettes could probably be linked to the youth appeal of the products.
"The vaping and tobacco industries need a new population of individuals to become addicted to nicotine to drive their profits," Dr Jongenelis said.
"We are hearing from parents, school teachers, and principles that the use of e-cigarettes among adolescents is becoming increasingly challenging.
"The devices can be purchased to look like USBs, hoodies and highlighters and so can be hidden from view and used surreptitiously."
We design all our communications in a way that is not appealing to youth.- Philip Morris Australia spokesperson
Dr Jongenelis said they were part of big tobacco's product diversification strategy to deliver new and novel nicotine delivery devices.
"The rapid and substantial increase in youth use of e-cigarettes reflects trends seen in other countries and is likely attributable to the youth-appealing nature of e-liquid flavours and e-cigarette advertising," she said.
Dr Jongenelis said the emerging vaping industry could undermine years of successful tobacco control in Australia.
"Action is therefore urgently needed to protect the Australian public from the activities of this industry," she said.
Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Professor Terry Slevin said the trend of young people in Australia taking up e-cigarettes was going in the wrong direction.
"Don't get conned by the vaping industry. This is the tobacco industry in 21st century clothing," Professor Slevin said.
Professor Slevin said there was a need to study the long-term effects of e-cigarettes and address the industry's ability to market the products digitally to younger people.
"Everyone understands that when it comes to public health, authorities have been busy with the pandemic. The capacity of the jurisdiction and its attention to this emergency has been diminished from the pandemic, but we do need to give it attention to find a way to nip this health issue in the bud," Professor Slevin said.
British American Tobacco Australasia and Imperial Tobacco Australia did not respond to questions.
A Philip Morris Australia spokesperson said the company had been clear that former and those who had never used nicotine products, especially youth, should not use any tobacco or nicotine products.
"We design all our communications in a way that is not appealing to youth and implement strict measures to limit youth interest and access to our products," the spokesperson said.
"We also believe governments should monitor youth adoption of nicotine products and take swift action to correct issues."
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