On September 3, 2021 the very busy vaping advocate Dr Colin Mendelsohn published a blog on his website where he critiqued a large report in the Sydney Morning Herald on the inundation of disposable flavoured nicotine vaping products into Australia.  Early in his blog, Mendelsohn made three statements about the prevalence of vaping in underage, young people.

1.“Official government figures show that underage vaping is rare in Australia, and frequent vaping is very rare. Less than two per cent of Australian teenagers vaped in 2019 and more than 90% had never tried vaping. News reports suggest vaping has increased since then but we have no data to confirm that, just ‘anecdotal’ reports.”

2. “What the article didn’t say is that almost all young people who vape regularly are already smokers before they tried vaping.”

3. “They also forgot to mention that most vaping is infrequent and short-term and one in three young vapers do it only once or twice.”

In his blog, Mendelsohn switches between two data sources, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS), conducted in 2019 and published in July 2020, and the Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) survey, conducted two years earlier in 2017.

Let’s look closely at how his statements align with what the two reports actually say.

Statement 1: Less than 2% of Australian teenagers vaped in 2019

Here, he links to the 2019 NDSHS as his source. There are 17 data tables on vaping in Australia at the NDSHS link. Table 2.19 shows any lifetime vaping (ie even experimental puffs) for 14-17 years olds at 9.6% and Table 2.24 that current use is 1.8%, a doubling since 2016.

Statement 2: That “almost all young people who vape regularly are already smokers before they tried vaping”

Here Mendelsohn linked the 2017 ASSAD schools survey to support his statement. But the ASSAD report states “Of the students who had ever used an e-cigarette (n = 2,403), 48% reported that they had never smoked a tobacco cigarette before their first vape”.

We can also look at the NDSHS data on this issue. Table 2.27 shows that 64.5% of 14-17 year olds who had vaped were never smokers when they initiated use of e-cigarettes.

So Mendelsohn is very wrong here regardless of which data set he might have chosen to support his assertion.

Statement 3: “most vaping is infrequent and short-term and one in three young vapers do it only once or twice.”

Mendelsohn again links to the NDSHS data to support this statement. Here it seems likely that he used Table 2.28 for support here because the “big” numbers in the table for  “I only tried them once or twice” appear consistent with his claims. However it should be noted that Table 2.28 has no data specific to  teenagers; it relates to all users aged “14 and over”. The definition of ‘current smoker’ used in this table includes ‘social smoker’ and ‘occasional smoker’ as well as ‘regular smoker’. This is important because some of the people included in that column may be young people who had only experimented with smoking in a very limited way. Relevant here, the ASSAD report found that “Of the students who had smoked before they tried e-cigarettes, 20% had only smoked a few puffs of a cigarette, 11% had smoked fewer than 10 cigarettes”.

The ASSAD report found:

  • that for all 12 to 17 year old students overall in 2017, around 14%  indicated they had ever used an e-cigarette at least once, and 32% of these students had used one in the past month (Tables 3.11 and  3.12)

  • Of those who had tried e-cigarettes, younger students were more likely to have used them recently. Around 37% of 12 to 15 year old users and 27% of 16 and 17 year old users reported vaping at least once during the past month. Younger vapers were also more likely to have used e-cigarettes at least three times in the past month (12-15: 16%; 16-17: 10%).”
  • “Around 12% of students reported buying an e-cigarette themselves.”

The huge inundation of disposable flavoured vapes into Australia rapidly accelerated from mid-2020 and therefore are not reflected in the 2019 NDSHS data let alone the 2017 ASSAD data. If you Google “vaping in schools”, there are many reports of what Mendelsohn dismisses as anecdotes from school principals, teachers and parent, nearly all expressing alarm at the obvious surge in teenage vaping.