Vaping and smoking in kids and teens

E-cigarettes (vapes) are battery operated devices that heat liquids, called e-liquids, into an aerosol that users breathe in.

Learning about vaping and smoking can help parents and carers talk to their kids about the health risks of cigarettes and e-cigarettes. 

The facts about vaping and smoking

What are vapes?

Vapes are battery operated devices that heat liquid (often called e-liquid). It produces an aerosol which is inhaled by the user, mimicking the act of smoking. This is often referred to as vaping.  

Some vapes contain nicotine, while others are nicotine free. At this stage, due to limited regulation, it is difficult to determine how much nicotine a vaping product may contain. This is the same highly addictive substance found in traditional tobacco products. 

What is in a vape?

Vape aerosol is not water vapour. The main ingredients in vapes are substances like propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine or glycerine.

Vapes can contain over 200 chemicals, some being found in cleaning products, nail polish remover, weed killer and bug spray. These chemicals are not labelled on the packet but can be harmful to users. 

While vapes comes in a range of appealing shapes, sizes, colours and flavours, a majority still contain highly addictive nicotine. The nicotine in one vape product can be the equivalent of 50 cigarettes. Young people who vape are also three times more likely to also take up smoking cigarettes. 

What do vapes look like?

Vaping products have been marketed in a range of different shapes and sizes and sometimes replicate items such as pens or highlighters which make them difficult to identify.

Vapes have evolved in their look from a disposable vape which resembled a cigarette all the way through to refillable ‘tanks’, which are a lot larger, and more recently to disposable, prefilled ‘pod mods’.  

Unlike cigarettes, vaping products do not emit a strong odour and can have a number of sweet smells that align with the flavouring (eg. watermelon, strawberry, mango). 

What about smoking?

When referring to traditional smoking, this is in the form of a cigarette, cigar or pipe which contains tobacco. 

The teenage years are the most common to take up or experiment smoking with 2017 data showing 6.4% of young people smoking traditional tobacco products.

Visit the NSW Health website to read more on the the facts about vaping. 

Health risks

Did you know?

In 2022, the NSW Poisons Information Centre received 365 calls related to e-cigarette exposure. Of these, 74.8% were for people under the age of 19 years.

In 2016, the number of calls was 33. This is an 11 fold increase in 6 years.

Tobacco smoking is the single most important preventable cause of ill health and death in Australia. Compared to 30 years ago, Australia has successfully reduced the number of people smoking from 24% to 11%.

E-liquids in vapes can vary depending on the product. They contain a number of different chemicals and toxic substances which can be harmful to the user, and those around them. The data on the negative health effects of e-cigarette use is starting to become stronger.

The adverse health effects of vaping and smoking include:

Nicotine dependence or addiction

Adolescents and young adults exposed to nicotine can become dependent on nicotine, even at low levels of exposure. Nicotine may have direct toxic effects on the developing brain, impacting on a young person’s learning, attention, and memory. 

Nicotine poisoning

Also known as nicotine toxicity which can be severe and even fatal in some cases. Small doses may contribute to gastrointestinal complications. Large doses may contribute to seizures, cardiovascular collapse or comas.

When liquid nicotine is heated, for example in e-cigarettes, the concentrations can be unknown and very high. Small doses can cause life-threatening toxicity in children and adults.

EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping Associated Lung Injury)

A lung condition associated with excessive exposure to e-cigarettes and vaping. A number of adolescents and young people in Australia have been hospitalised due to EVALI.

Other adverse health effects

There is a long list of health complications associated with smoking tobacco or nicotine containing products. 

These include:

  • severe long-term conditions such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • consistent day-to-day conditions such as throat irritations, coughing, dizziness, headaches and nausea. 

Unknown long term health effects

Currently, there are growing concerns for smoking e-cigarettes including impacts on the brain, dental and physical development.

There is evolving evidence for the potential negative effect on oral health, accelerating the development of dental caries and concerns around flavour additives being consumed via inhaling into the lungs rather than orally consumed in food products.

See the E-cigarette child safety pamphlet and the Medication safety webpage for more information.

Second-hand smoke

Second-hand smoke, also known as passive smoke, occurs when someone breathes in smoke from another person’s vape or tobacco product. Second-hand smoke is produced when:

  • a smoker exhales after using a smoke or a vape OR
  • when the burning end of a tobacco product releases smoke. 

Second-hand smoke can come from any vaping or tobacco product, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, shisha (waterpipes), cigars or pipes.

Children exposed to second-hand smoke

Second-hand smoke is a serious health threat and can cause significant harm to children. Children are at a greater risk because:

  • their bodies are still growing and developing
  • they breathe at a faster rate than adults
  • their lungs are smaller and less mature.

Parents or carers who smoke are the most common source of second-hand smoke exposure for children. 

Children exposed to second-hand smoke are at risk of health complications including:

Respiratory conditions

  • asthma: second-hand smoke exposure during childhood is a key risk factor for asthma development
  • poor lung development
  • croup
  • bronchitis
  • pneumonia

Additional health problems

  • leukaemia
  • middle ear infections
  • neuro behavioural conditions, for example Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • anti-social behaviour 

Children exposed to second-hand smoke are also more likely to become smokers themselves later in life.

Impacts on unborn babies and newborn

Second-hand smoke for an unborn child increases the risk of:

  • stillbirth
  • premature babies
  • health complications for the mother and child
  • poor growth and development outcomes
  • poor lung development

Second-hand smoke for a newborn child doubles the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) compared to babies who are not exposed to second-hand smoke.

How to reduce children’s exposure to second-hand smoke:

The best way to protect children from the dangers of second-hand smoke is to keep children’s environments as smoke and vape-free as possible. 

  1. Establish house rules: Smoke or vape outside the house and away from windows. 
  2. Avoid smoking or vaping in the car with children: Blowing smoke out the window does not protect children from the dangers of second-hand smoke.
  3. Quit smoking or vaping yourself: Quitting will not only reduce your child’s exposure to second-hand smoke but also improve your own health.
  4. Teach children the harmful effects of both smoking and second-hand smoke

The health complications from second-hand vaping

Vapes contain many of the same harmful chemicals as tobacco products. Children are just as much at risk of health complications from second-hand vape smoke.

Laws in Australia

Smoking laws help create safer environments and less harmful effects from tobacco and vaping products. Both State and Federal Governments work together to ensure that community members, including children and young adults, know the risks of what they are consuming, and to reduce the wide access and marketing of these products. 

Tobacco products must display health warnings clearly on the packet which has proven to be one of the biggest public health successes in the past 20 years. 

As e-cigarettes are a relatively new product in Australia, laws progressing alongside an ever-evolving market for these products.

There are currently no nicotine vaping products in Australia that have been assessed and approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). They are considered ‘unapproved’ due to safety, quality and efficacy. 

Current e-cigarette laws in Australia

  • E-cigarettes are a nicotine prescription product as per the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). A consumer needs a valid prescription to purchase nicotine containing e-cigarettes (vapes) in Australia.   
  • Vaping products (even those containing no nicotine) cannot be sold or supplied to anyone under the age of 18 years (even on prescription).   
  • It is illegal for Australian retailers (tobacconists, vape stores, convenience stores and service stations) to sell nicotine containing e-cigarettes (vapes) to any consumer, even if the consumer has a valid doctor’s prescription.   
  • Australians need a valid prescription to legally access nicotine containing e-cigarette products in any form, from any seller. 
  • E-cigarettes that do not contain nicotine are legal in Australia. Adults above the age of 18 can buy and use e-cigarettes that do not contain nicotine (consumers should be aware that a recent study had found 6 out of every 10 products advertised as non-nicotine had various levels of nicotine present within the product.) 
  • ‘No smoking’ signage covers both smoking tobacco and e-cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes or e-cigarettes is prohibited in smoke free zones. This includes indoor venues for smoking. 

Current tobacco laws in Australia

Tobacco products are not allowed to:

  • be advertised in a way showing it is persuasive or encouraging for someone to smoke.
  • be advertised through sponsorship, point of sale or displayed in a retail setting
  • be smoked in enclosed public places including public transport, cinemas, shopping centres and pubs.

Tobacco product have to abide by:

  • plain packaging laws
  • displaying certain health warnings and graphics 
  • tobacco excise rates for pricing.

If you think your child or someone they know has been poisoned by liquid nicotine, please call the NSW Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 or call Triple Zero (000) in the case of an emergency. 

Last updated Monday 6th May 2024