Words by Will (he/him/they), 20 ACT
Once upon a time, when a character in a movie needed something to fidget with when the dialogue was slow, they rolled a cigarette. When a scene got too intense, the character walked out to collect their thoughts on the porch, they’d light a cigarette, and contemplate, as the warm breeze quietly sailed by.
And when this character needed a quick romantic connection with the love interest all she would have to do is ask and her knight in shining armour would shuffle over coaxing a match ready to ignite the fire of love the moment she inhaled from that sweet cigarette.
But all good things must come to an end. Since then, a growing body of scientific literature has further demonstrated the lethal effects of smoking. You would think this would be the end for cigarette companies, and in a way, it was – fewer and fewer people are taking up smoking. But cigarette companies live on, in the half-life of the generation it hooked on cigarettes.
This is a shame because this generation of people are trapped in an addictive cycle of inhaling a huge amount of terrible chemicals and carcinogenic tars.
Attempts have been made to help people quit. From sheer willpower (which works for some people) to replacing cigarettes with longer-acting sources of nicotine known as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) such as patches or tablets (which works for more people). But really the standout, best treatment for most people is vaping.
Vapes are a recognised harm reduction method. The modern-day vape was invented in 2003 by Hon Lik. As the story goes, his dad had died from smoking-related illnesses which prompted him to design a safer alternative. So, I think it’s fair to say vapes were made with medical intent.
In 2019, the Cochrane review found that out of 100 people who try to quit smoking, counselling and advice will work for about 4%, NRT will work for about 6%, and vaping will work for about 10%. It’s undeniably a valid treatment option, often more successful than existing methods.
But, as far as can be seen, vapes have failed in Australia.
Vaping companies were too quick to target their advertising towards a young audience of non-smokers. Though this article is focused on presenting vapes as the lesser of two evils, it is only a lesser of two evils when compared with smoking. For young people who don’t have a pre-existing addiction to smoking, vaping becomes the greater evil compared with what they were already breathing, clean air. It’s an unnecessarily risky and potentially harmful practice for young people who’ve never smoked before.
The government jumped on this issue, but it was too slow and too severe in reacting.
The government has made vapes much more difficult to legally obtain than cigarettes. People using vapes to quit smoking require regular prescriptions from specifically qualified doctors that need to be filled at chemists. This creates more hassle for addicted smokers to transition to safer alternatives.
Meanwhile, kids are finding vapes easier than ever to source, from various dealers or even from certain corner shops. This is pretty much the worst situation possible, where people who could use vapes for harm reduction can’t access it – at least not nearly as easily as cigarettes – and for people who receive no benefit from vaping, their use runs rampant.
This is addicting a new generation to nicotine. Although it’s illegal to sell vapes containing nicotine, and most vapes sold in stores say, ‘nicotine free’, this is only a label to get past customs and often they do, in fact, contain nicotine.
Worse again, some of the usual offenders in parts of the media (and even some usually more respectable news outlets) are doing as expected – speculating and sensationalising the effects of vaping, just to sell a few stories.
While informing the general public about certain topics (as I am trying to do) is incredibly noble, they are doing it recklessly and in a way that is exacerbating the situation. They talk about vapes as incredibly dangerous, some even going so far as to suggest they are worse than cigarettes, without providing the measliest shred of evidence.
As far as I’m aware, the scariest thing ever found in commercial vape liquid was in 2015. It was ‘diacetyl’, an artificial butter flavour used in microwave popcorn which is genuinely harmful. But the vapes actually contained less of this chemical than cigarettes do – something most media outlets forgot to mention – and it was quickly phased out of vapes after the media frenzy.
Widely over publicising the exaggerated danger of vapes is dangerous for two reasons.
First, telling smokers that vapes are just as dangerous, or more than cigarettes is going to keep a lot of smokers using cigarettes. Obviously, this is bad and deadly.
Second, the media ramping up hysteria around vapes isn’t going to stop young people from vaping. In some cases, media hysteria has actually increased rates of drug use in young people[2,4], and nicotine looks no different. Young people have quite a rational distrust of media and often they interpret the message completely different from how it was intended to be received.
As I see it, the government has one last card to play that could turn this around.
The government should reform its laws to make vapes more on the same page as cigarettes – being easily available to adults while still being closely controlled in advertising and all other aspects. This would make it easier for existing adult smokers to access vaping as a method of harm reduction while slowing the influence of vape companies on their target audience.
The government should also launch an ad campaign encouraging adult smokers to transition to vaping, letting smokers know in no uncertain terms that vapes are a safer option than cigarettes.
They could even try to make it seem cool because there’d be no better way to instantly render vaping so lame that young people are disincentivised from using vapes than a ‘hip’ government ad.
Vapes are without a doubt less harmful than smoking cigarettes, however, they are still dangerous and should only be used as a replacement for cigarettes, not recreationally by anyone. Vapes sold in the underground market – the products youth have access to – especially tend to contain chemicals that have not been properly tested for human use, especially not as inhalants, and those are just the ingredients that are in there on purpose before even considering the lack of quality control in an illegal and therefore unregulated market.
For those seeking further information check out this YouTube video.