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The impact of vaping on Australia’s healthcare system

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The negative effects of vaping are impacting individuals, communities and the healthcare system. Discover how health professionals can be part of the solution.

This article covers themes related to depression, mental health challenges and emotional distress. Reader discretion is advised.

The rapid increase of e-cigarette usage and the rise in vaping has created challenges for governments, policymakers and health professionals. Around the world, the use of e-cigarettes has grown at an alarming rate, particularly among the young. According to the online resource Tobacco in Australia, in 2013, just 4.5 per cent of Australians aged 14 and over had ever used e-cigarettes. By 2016, that number had doubled to 8.8 per cent, and in 2019 it was 11 per cent.

A 2023 Department of Health and Aged Care report revealed that in the under-35-years age group, vapers outnumber smokers. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation reports that 14 per cent of people aged 12 to 17 years old have tried an e-cigarette.

In this article, we explore the history and impact of vaping and the steps Australia’s health organisations and the government are taking to stamp out vaping through measures such as legislation and education. We also discover how Australia’s health professionals can be part of the solution. Through education, public health messaging and individual efforts, health providers have a significant role to play.

Vaping health effects: the history and impact of e-cigarettes

We can trace the history of vaping to a 1927 US patent application. Various patents have been lodged by tobacco companies and inventors in the decades since. By 2006, e-cigarettes had been introduced around the world and, with claims they could assist with smoking cessation, their popularity and the industry grew.

Despite initial optimism, concerns about the safety and side effects of vaping emerged. Since then, health organisations, governments and policymakers have grappled with the response to and regulation of e-cigarette products.

Innovation in the industry has been rapid, and global regulators have struggled to keep up. Past debates have centred on the potential role in harm reduction of e-cigarettes versus the risks they pose to public health, particularly among youth. The rhetoric has since changed. Bodies such as the World Health Organisation, the Australian Medical Association and Cancer Council Australia, consumer groups and governments have now firmly stated there is inadequate evidence that shows these products should be used for smoking cessation.

Meanwhile, the evidence of harms related to e-cigarettes is increasing. Leading peak body Lung Foundation Australia states that while the long-term vaping health effects are not clear, short-term effects include nausea, vomiting, airway irritation, chest pain and heart palpitations.

Damage caused by vaping

Eugenie Pepper, a psychotherapist at Key Hypnotherapy, works with clients from all walks of life to help them overcome addiction. Like many working in the mental health profession, she is seeing first-hand the harm vaping can do. “I’m experiencing a rapid growth in clients with strong nicotine addiction from a surge in the popularity of vaping among young people.”

While Pepper is not treating the clinical symptoms of vaping, she is seeing the physical harm that it causes. “I’m seeing 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds. The average age of the people coming to me as a result of vaping is 15 to 30. Clients are presenting with shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and coughing up blood.”

Look at the ingredient list in vapes, and it’s perhaps no surprise. Common additives include:

  • acetone, which has been linked to diabetes and lateral sclerosis, a neurological disease
  • 2-chlorophenol, which is found in cleaning products and insecticides and can cause respiratory irritation
  • ultrafine particles, which can be inhaled deeply and cause serious lung disease
  • benzene, a compound found in car exhaust fumes
  • heavy metals, such as tin and lead
  • various other toxic and carcinogenic chemicals

In young people and teenagers, exposure to nicotine can be detrimental to brain development and learning. Young people exposed to nicotine are also at an increased risk of future addiction to other drugs.

From an environmental perspective, e-cigarettes contain circuit boards and lithium batteries, which, when discarded, add to electronic waste. Many products also contain plastics that cannot be recycled due to their nicotine content. Pods from e-cigarettes can leak if discarded incorrectly, potentially contaminating waterways and affecting aquatic life.

Vaping legislation: the government’s plan

The Albanese Government has introduced a range of measures to reduce smoking and eliminate vaping, including vaping legislation. The new vaping laws in Australia are wide-reaching and form part of the government’s ambitious reform plan to reduce the smoking rate to less than 10 per cent of the Australian population by 2025 and five per cent or less of the population by 2030.

The government has pledged $737 million to fund the measures, including $63 million for a public health campaign discouraging Australians from starting vaping and $30 million to bolster programs that help Australians quit. It wants stronger enforcement of regulations controlling e-cigarettes’ ingredients, contents and packing.

Collaborating with the states and territories, the Australian Government hopes to end the importation of black market and non-prescription vapes, raise quality standards for legal vapes and ban single-use products.

Reducing the impact of vaping: the role of healthcare professionals

With an increase in vaping comes a rise in health conditions and the pressure on health practitioners to treat those conditions. Public health workers, nurses and mental health professionals like Pepper are already treating the short-term side effects of vaping and bracing for longer-term impacts on the healthcare system.

“Higher rates of vaping-related health issues will lead to an increased demand for healthcare services, including doctors, emergency departments, hospitals and specialised clinics,” Pepper says. “The increased burden could strain healthcare resources and lead to longer wait times and reduced access to care for both vaping-related issues and other health conditions.”

Vaping increases the risk of developing short- and long-term conditions such as heart disease and lung infections and can exacerbate conditions such as asthma and obstructive lung diseases. More nurses and other health professionals will be needed to treat these conditions and support patients who want to quit.

As nicotine use increases, so too does a person’s risk of developing depression. Mental health workers such as Pepper provide vital support to combat the impact of vaping and nicotine use and will be essential in the treatment of mental health conditions due to vaping.

Health promoters and public health campaigners play a critical role in educating the public on the dangers of vaping. In 2023, various campaigns have already been launched, including VicHealth’s campaign and hub, aimed at educating Victorians about the health risks of vaping. The Queensland Government has joined forces with Dr Karl Kruszelnicki to educate Queenslanders about vaping. Cancer Council WA’s Clear the Air vaping prevention campaign targets young people. Individual healthcare providers also have a role to play in educating patients, parents and the community about the risks of vaping.

Healthcare workers also play a part in policymaking by advocating for more effective regulations. They can contribute to a better understanding of the health risks of vaping by engaging in research and collaborating to develop more holistic health outcomes for those struggling with addiction.

Upskill in healthcare

Healthcare roles are in demand in Australia, and as new public health concerns, such as vaping, emerge, those demands will only get stronger. Whether you already work in healthcare and want to upskill or are considering moving into the healthcare industry, postgraduate study is a great way to refocus your career.

GlobalHealth Education partners with Australian universities to deliver high-quality health courses online. You can study public health, nursing, mental health, psychology and more. These courses are flexible, so you can balance personal and work commitments while studying at a pace that works for you.

Australia’s healthcare system needs mental health professionals with the skills to ensure the best outcomes in this complex discipline. If you hold a bachelor’s qualification in a related field and want to enhance your understanding of mental health, Southern Cross University’s Master of Mental Health may be perfect for you. Registered nurses may be eligible to enrol in this course.

Master of Mental Health
Master of Mental Health
Delivered part-time and online, this course is designed to prepare graduates to work within a wide range of health settings and disciplines.
Master's 24 months 12 Units
  • Contemporary Mental Health
  • Mental Health Across the Lifespan
  • Mental Health in Community, Non-Government and Primary Health Settings
  • Acute Mental Health
  • Leading Evidence-based Practice in Health
  • Physical Healthcare in Mental Health
  • Supporting Behaviour Change in Mental Health Contexts
  • Building a Professional Portfolio
  • Applied Leadership in Mental Health Clinical Practice
  • Developing Skills in Contemporary Psychotherapies
  • Critical Review in Health
  • Plus Electives

Are you a professional passionate about making positive changes to public health outcomes? Victoria University’s Master of Public Health Specialising in Health Promotion course will equip you with the skills to help shape public health and tackle current and emerging issues in the sector.

Master of Public Health Specialising in Health Promotion
Master of Public Health Specialising in Health Promotion
Study 100% online and learn how effective health promotion works, understand and act on factors that cause poor health and those that create and sustain good health.
Master's 24 months 12 Units
  • Foundations of Public Health
  • Epidemiology and Biostatistics 1
  • Public Health in Practice
  • Culture and Society in Public Health
  • Epidemiology and Biostatistics 2
  • Promoting Health in Policy
  • Public Health Program Management
  • Innovative and Evidence-Based Health Promotion
  • Social Media and Social Marketing Approaches to Health Promotion
  • Global Contexts of Health Promotion Practice with Diverse Populations
  • Professional Project
  • Plus Electives

Health systems need qualified senior nurses and nurse leaders. If you’re a nurse who’d like to further your career, James Cook University’s Master of Nursing Majoring in Education will equip you with the skills to transform your practice.

Master of Nursing Majoring in Education
Master of Nursing Majoring in Education
Designed by nursing professionals and 100% online, the education major, with its four specialised units in healthcare education, prepares you to take on educational practice roles in clinical or non-clinical environments.
Master's 24 months 12 Units
  • Informatics for Health Professionals
  • Effective Clinical Governance
  • Persuasive Communication
  • Synthesising Evidence for Healthcare
  • Quantitative Research in Healthcare
  • Qualitative Research in Healthcare
  • Implementing Practice Development in Healthcare Contexts
  • Professional Portfolios for Career Advancement
  • Principles of Education for the Health Professional
  • Teaching in Practice Settings
  • Clinical Coaching
  • Contemporary Healthcare Education

Health professionals can also access a range of CPD courses and training to give them the skills and knowledge to support clients and patients with vaping addictions.

Take the next step in your healthcare career

There’s no doubt that the impact of vaping will continue to pose a raft of challenges to Australia’s healthcare system. As a healthcare professional, you can be part of making positive change and enhancing the lives and health outcomes of those affected by vaping. 

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