A survey from Australia has been completely misunderstood, suggesting a teen vaping epidemic in the country that isn’t in fact real. The misleading conclusions have been picked up by media outlets worldwide and could not only support draconian regulation due next January in Australia, but also harm the perceptions of vaping on a global scale.
The survey in question was The National Drug Household Strategy Survey (NDHSS), which is conducted every 3 years in the South-Pacific country. Whilst a number of findings were uncovered, media outlets have homed in on a misinterpretation of data which suggests that 65% of 14–17 year olds were vaping. On the face of it, this would indeed be very concerning, however when you scratch beneath the surface the facts tell a very different story.
Associate Professor Coral Gartner, Head of Nicotine & Tobacco Regulatory Science Research Group at the University of Queensland was able to clarify to an Australian journalist that the 65% figure was not the rate of teen vaping, but the proportion of 14-17 year olds that had vaped, but had not smoked before they first vaped.[i] Confusing, and far, far too easy to use to mislead, a proportion of a proportion. That can of course turn out to be a very small number, even if one of those proportions is 65%.
Another huge error in the coverage is the conclusion that vaping among non-smokers has quadrupled in the past six years. This is also a huge misinterpretation of the data, which quite clearly shows that monthly use of e-cigarettes was confined to around 0.5% of “never smokers” both in 2016 and 2019.
While we can clearly understand that this manipulation of data is just plain wrong, it is important to understand whether vaping rates among teenagers is of genuine concern. Dr Gartner unravelled the truth and exposed the facts. Unsurprisingly, the real figures are not concerning and show zero sign of an epidemic.
The true state of play of vaping in Australia
To calculate the real rate of vaping, the first requirement is a firm indicator of what constitutes a current vaper (e-cigarette user). The National Drug Household Strategy Survey (NDHSS) defined ‘current users’ of e-cigarettes as anyone who has vaped at least once in the past year. It is tough to justify this as current use, in fact it is a very stringent measure from any vaper’s perspective.
Using this measure, the actual current vaping rate of 14-17 year olds stood at just 1.8%, a long way from the 65% which is suggested in the damaging headlines. Moreover, the correct figures for the proportion of non-smokers who were vaping in Australia is poles apart from those suggested in the media. The correct rate of people of any age who had vaped in the past year, but were non-smokers stood at just 2.9%. This is a slight increase from 2.0%, 3 years ago. Dr Gartner explained that statistically many of the numbers are very low, in fact “so low, we can’t get a good measure of current use”.
Following in the footsteps of the USA’s teen vaping mishap
If this is indeed a strategy of manipulating data to suit an “anti-vape” tobacco control agenda, it reeks of underhand tactics previously employed in the USA, which have had a devastating impact on US vaping legislation. Across the pond, we have seen an almost identical campaign, with misleading or misinterpreted data used as ammo to incriminate the vaping industry and to strong arm legislators into introducing harsh new laws.
A tirade of US headlines in 2018 and 2019 relentlessly attacked vaping, repeatedly insisting that teen vaping was at epidemic proportions. In October 2019 the truth came out via an independent study[ii] which exposed the faulty headlines and proved the apparent epidemic to be non-existent. The misleading US headlines suggesting an epidemic erroneously included data on experimental e-cigarette use. The Australian news this week is rather graver in terms of depth of error, as it inflates 1.8% of at least yearly use, which must be experimental in many cases, to 65%, overestimating the number of teen vapers by a factor of more than 35 times.
The future of vaping in Australia
Just weeks before the apparent ‘news’ of an Australian teen vaping epidemic surfaced, the media was littered with news of a vape import ban. This legislation was supposed to come into force with almost immediate effect and would mean Aussie vapers would not be able to have vaping products shipped to them from overseas. However, there was significant backlash from vapers and pressure from government officials so Greg Hunt, Health Minister delayed the ban until January 1st 2021.
It certainly seems as though there is an anti-vaping agenda in Australia. This is despite the growth in vaping rates correlating with a decline in smoking rates. It has been devastating to see the demise of the vaping industry in the USA so we sincerely hope Australia isn’t heading in the same direction.