What’s in a vape? Why are vapes addictive? Do all vapes contain nicotine? When it comes to vaping, there’s no shortage of confusion. To date, details about exactly what they contain, what’s legal and what’s not, have been sketchy, but that’s all about to change.
In May this year, the Federal government announced a crackdown, banning single-use disposable vapes and devices marketed to younger people. “These are supposed to be pharmaceutical products,” Health Minister Mark Butler told the National Press Club. “They have to present that way — no more bubblegum flavours, pink unicorns or vapes disguised as pens for kids to hide in pencil cases. Instead, we will have plain packaging with plain flavours.”
We asked the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan to explain what’s in vapes, why they’re addictive and explain why vaping is a very real danger to our health.
What is vaping?
Vaping super-heats flavoured liquids or “juice” to make a chemical vapour for inhalation. Inhaling this vapour which often contains unknown quantities of nicotine typically delivers much greater amounts of nicotine than cigarettes, causing massive nicotine spikes.2 “Nicotine is a highly addictive,” Dr Swan explains. “And these high dose spikes afre designed to cement that addiction.”
There’s only one source of nicotine and that’s tobacco.2 Traditionally consumed via cigarettes, tobacco smoking releases nicotine into the lungs where it’s absorbed into the blood which travels to the brain where it creates a desire for more nicotine. Vaping works in the same way except the nicotine is heated rather than burned.
Are vapes illegal in Australia?
Yes and no. Since 2021, any vape containing nicotine is illegal in Australia, unless it’s been prescribed for you by a doctor and purchased from a pharmacy.1 But vapes that don’t contain nicotine are legal. “The problem with vaping is that most vaping products in Australia at the moment contain nicotine, even if it doesn’t say so on the label,” says Dr Swan.
Not only do most vapes sold at convenience stores, tobacconists and online contain illegal nicotine, mislabelling means people using vapes are doing so without realising the risks to their health. “It means if you vape, you’ll very likely become nicotine-addicted,” Dr Swan argues.
Is vaping addictive?
“Vaping nicotine is designed to make you addicted,” Dr Swan says. “The way you vape by taking in large amounts of drug in a short space of time is the way you get addicted to any substance. Those massive variations in levels from high to low makes your body crave more.”
Just like cigarettes which contain chemicals that can lead to lung disease, heart disease and cancer, vape juice contains other toxins apart from nicotine that are potentially hazardous to health.3
“There are indications that these chemicals in vaping products may not be as safe as you’d like,” Dr Swan says. “If you’re not smoking cigarettes and you take up vaping, you may well be on a path to harm and certainly to addiction.”
Is vaping bad for you?
As well as being addictive, according to the Lung Foundation Australia, “vaping is unsafe and potentially dangerous.”3
A 2022 study examining found “Australian e-liquids include potentially toxic chemicals, for many of which no information on inhalation health effects are available.”4 A team from Curtin University, WA analysed 52 kinds of vape liquid and found all of them were incorrectly labelled, contained toxic chemicals including formaldehyde and yes, many contained nicotine.4
Is vaping worse than smoking?
“The usefulness of vaping is really for people who are smokers and want to quit,” Dr Swan says. “They can get a prescription for a vaping device with nicotine in it, and then be monitored by their general practitioner. The takeaway is that vaping’s fine to help you get off smoking.”
If you’re a smoker or vaper who wants to be free of nicotine addiction, talk to your GP about how plain packaged, flavour-free prescription vape products may be used to help you quit.
According to the Cancer Council Australia, “most Australian smokers want to quit, and 70 percent are actively planning to do so”.5
Other evidence-based options to quit smoking or vaping can also be managed by your GP. They include nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) – usually a combination of long-lasting treatment patch with an immediate release spray, gum or lozenge to manage acute cravings – prescription medications and counselling. New prescription vaping products could have a role to play in a successful GP managed quit strategy too.
Is vaping linked to cigarette smoking?
After decades of progress and consistent reduction in tobacco consumption, vapes are single-handedly hooking teens and young people on nicotine. The latest survey from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found “almost two in five smokers aged 14 and over in 2019 had used e-cigarettes.” 6 For the first time in almost 30 years, smoking is on the rise too, with data showing young people who vape are three times more likely to progress to smoking.
How to quit vaping
If you want to stop vaping, but are struggling to quit, there are plenty of resources available to help you kick the habit for good. Other nicotine replacement therapies including sprays, gum and patches can help. Alternative therapies like hypnosis and acupuncture are also available. Depending on your health history and circumstances, your doctor may also prescribe medications like Prexaton or Zyban. If you want to give up vaping or smoking, speak to your GP about what approach is right for you, or call the Quitline on 13 7848.
For more information, visit https://www.quit.org.au/articles/about-quitline-13-7848/
1.Australian Government Depart of Health and Ageing Therapeutic Goods Administration. Nicotine vaping laws are changing. September 3, 2021. Accessed May 28, 2023. https://www.tga.gov.au/news/blog/nicotine-vaping-laws-are-changing
2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Nicotine is why tobacco products are addictive. June 29, 2022. Accessed May 28, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-effects-tobacco-use/nicotine-why-tobacco-products-are-addictive
3. Lung Foundation Australia. E-cigarettes and vaping. Nd. Accessed May 28, 2023. https://lungfoundation.com.au/lung-health/protecting-your-lungs/e-cigarettes-and-vaping/
4.A Larcombe, S Allard, P Pringle, R Mead-Hunter, N Anderson, B Mullins. Chemical analysis of fresh and aged Australian e-cigarette. Medical Journal of Australia. 2022.doi:10.5694/mja2.51280.
5. Cancer Council Australia. Cancer Council welcomes release of National Tobacco Strategy, restoring Australia’s commitment to reduce smoking rates. May 3, 2023. Accessed May 28, 2023. https://www.cancer.org.au/media-releases/2023/cancer-council-welcomes-release-of-national-tobacco-strategy-restoring-australia-s-commitment-to-reduce-smoking-rates
6. Australian Government Institute of Health and Welfare. Tobacco. Accessed May 28, 2023. https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/05555432-185f-4fda-a9a5-947aa0b173b2/PHE221Factsheets-Tobacco-26042023.pdf.aspx