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Opinion piece in The West Australian - Anti-vaping strategy must be informed by young people

By Jacqueline McGowan-Jones

Right now there’s a lot of discussion about e-cigarettes and their impact on children and young people at both a local and national level, and for good reason.

There is a growing body of research showing how harmful e-cigarettes really are, and the Federal Government announcement on restricting the sale of recreational vapes shows the level of growing concern.

I am asking young people aged 12-18 across WA to take part in a short anonymous online survey to share their views on e-cigarettes.

WA young people are invited to share their views on e-cigarette use, access to e-cigarettes and what they want adults to know or do better when it comes to vapes and young people. While medical researchers are still learning about e-cigarettes, they do not consider them safe, particularly when used by children and young people.

Children and young people who use these products are at significant risk of damaging their developing brain, creating a dependence and a potential uptake in cigarette smoking.

There are also reports that children and young people who use e-cigarettes experience anxiety, irritability, sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating and behavioural issues linked to dependence, which can in turn have negative impacts on their relationships, their engagement in education and their overall wellbeing.

Despite these risks, there is anecdotal evidence that many WA children and young people have tried vaping, and I believe they don’t have enough information on the contents of these products, or how they may impact them now and into the future. I am concerned that children and young people currently appear able to access these harmful products quite easily, and with new restrictions touted I would like to see how we also address non-commercial supply channels.

In the 2021 Speaking Out Survey, most high school students said they knew enough about the health effects of cigarettes, so I am interested to know if they feel the same way about vaping, or if they see e-cigarettes in a different way to tobacco cigarettes.

I’m aware that the Department of Education has provided a toolkit for schools, outlining strategies to minimise vaping among students. However the issue of vaping does not start and end at the school gate, so we cannot expect schools to face this challenge in isolation.

Families, education and youth services staff are all at the frontline in supporting children and young people to make informed decisions about healthy behaviours.

To do this well, we need to know what supports young people themselves want to assist them.

I want to ensure that our young people have a voice in the response to vaping: to give them a chance to tell us what they think about e-cigarettes and the impact vaping has on them. Their views can, and should, inform the policy and service response to e-cigarette use, because young people know best what works for them.

I also want to better understand what it is that young people find appealing about e-cigarettes, how easy is it for them to access these products and what they want adults to understand or do better when it comes to e-cigarettes and young people.

It is important to understand if there are things that worry or concern young people about e-cigarettes and, if they are worried or concerned about the impact these products might have on them or on someone they care about, to hear what young people want adults to do better or differently to support them.

Solutions suggested by young people are more likely to be well-received by them, so we should know what kinds of information or support they feel they need and would like.

The information and suggestions I receive from WA young people will enable me to advocate on their behalf and I will share a summary of findings from the survey later this year.

For everyone reading this today I encourage you to share the survey, which can be accessed through my website, with the young people in your life and encourage them to take a few minutes to add their voices to this important issue.

Published in The West Australian on 3 May 2023 on page 54.