Smoking rates at historic low but young vapers are a worry

Public health

By Michael Woodhead

21 Jul 2020

Smoking rates in Australia have fallen to a historic low of 11% but health groups worry this welcome trend is offset by an increase in vaping among young people.

New national figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey show the number of daily smokers has fallen significantly from 12.2% in 2016 to 11.0% in 2019, representing a halving in the number of Australians (24%) who were smoking in 1991.

The rates are particularly low among young people, with only 0.7% of 14-17 years old girls and 3.1% of boys reporting smoking.

Anti-tobacco campaigner Professor Simon Chapman noted that the biggest contribution to falling smoking prevalence has been the continuing rise in the number of people who have never taken it up, particularly younger people. He noted that the proportion of young adults aged 18–24 never smoking more than 100 cigarettes in their life has increased from 58% to 80% between 2001 and 2019.

“This wonderful trend reflects the impact of continuing “slow burn” policies like tax rises, total advertising bans, plain packaging, graphic health warnings and the thorough denormalization of smoking in public indoor settings,” he said.

But Dr Michelle Jongenelis, Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at Melbourne University said it was worrying that e-cigarette use among non-smokers aged 18 to 24 years had quadrupled in just 6 years: from 5% in 2013 to 20% in 2019. Furthermore, 65% of adolescents and 39% of young adults who report using e-cigarettes for the first time have never previously smoked.

“These concerning proportions are likely being driven by the vaping industry’s narrative that e-cigarettes are ‘harmless’. Increasing use among non-smoking youth also speaks to the vaping industry’s continued targeting of this population via youth-oriented marketing and the development of new youth-oriented e-juice flavours, such as bubblegum and Red Bull,” she said.

“These are the same techniques used by the tobacco industry in the 1960’s – and history has shown us how that turned out.”

Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO, Cancer Council Australia said the new figures supported firm opposition to importation of vaping liquids.

“Combined with established evidence that e-cigarettes are no more effective as a quitting aid than safer options, as well evidence of their dual use and association with smoking and nicotine addiction in young people, Australia’s precautionary approach needs to continue.”

“We’re on the threshold of a new generation of smoke- and nicotine-free young Australians, free from the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry.”

The Morrison government recently announced it would delay implementation of a proposed TGA crackdown on the illegal importation of liquid nicotine after heavy industry lobbying.

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