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09 Dec 2014

Young Australians are rapidly turning to e-cigarettes despite uncertainty about their long-term health effects, underlining calls for tight control on their marketing and availability.

A major survey of household drug use found that, in 2013, 27 per cent of 18 to 24-year-old smokers had used e-cigarettes in the previous 12 months, highlighting concerns that the new technology is making rapid inroads into the Australian market, even though their safety and efficacy as an aid to quitting smoking has yet to be proven.

In the most substantial examination yet of the extent of e-cigarette use in Australia, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for the first time asked about battery operated electronic cigarettes in last year’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey, the detailed results of which have just been released.

The survey found that one in seven (14.8 per cent) of smokers aged 14 years or older had used e-cigarettes in the previous 12 months, with younger smokers much more likely than their older counterparts to have tried them out.

While more than a quarter of young adults reported using e-cigarettes, just 7 per cent of those in their sixties had tried them.

E-cigarettes operate by heating up a vial of fluid, sometimes impregnated with nicotine, to emit a vapour which is then inhaled.

They have been marketed as an aid in quitting smoking, though these claims have not yet been substantiated, and health authorities are concerned that not enough is yet known about their long-term health effects and have raised the possibility that they be a pathway to smoking tobacco, particularly among children.

Alarmed by the rapid uptake of e-cigarettes despite the dearth of knowledge about their effects, the Queensland Parliament became the first jurisdiction in Australia to subject the product to the same restrictions as tobacco cigarettes, making it illegal to sell them to minors or use them in no smoking areas.

While evidence is still being gathered on the health effects of e-cigarettes, doctors and public health experts advise people not to use them.

They warn that, because nicotine is highly addictive, people should avoid e-cigarettes that contain nicotine (and which are illegal in Australia).

And they have voiced alarm about the way e-cigarettes are being formulated and marketed specifically to attract children and other young users, with offering including chocolate, lolly and alcohol flavours.

Health experts are demanding that governments crack down on the promotion of e-cigarettes, including by preventing manufacturers and distributors from making unverified claims about their use as an aid in quitting smoking.

They said e-cigarettes must not be confused with proven nicotine replacement therapies, which have been rigorously assessed for their efficacy and safety before being approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

The TGA is yet to approve any e-cigarette product as an aid in quitting smoking.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 09 Dec 2014