Since vapes flooded the mainstream three-ish years ago, *many* young Aussies have become addicted — or more addicted — to nicotine. When we all had our first hits we genuinely believed they were better for our lungs than smoking tobacco. It’s just water vapour, right? How good! But now addiction rates among young people have risen so much it’s started to cause an uptick in cigarette smoking rates too, after decades of dramatic declines.

The number of dual users of both e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes is rising in Australia, according to Quitline.

“Anecdotally, Quitline has had reports of people who successfully quit smoking, tried vaping and ended up smoking again,” a Quitline spokesperson told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“Vaping can be difficult to control. You have a finite number of cigarettes in a pack and you might have 10 to 15 drags until the cigarette is finished. Some e-cigarettes contain up to 2,400 puffs so there’s no natural stopping point.”

Melbourne resident David (surname withheld) has been socially smoking cigarettes for about eight years. He started vaping early last year and said it was “a different story”.

“I don’t ‘enjoy’ vaping, it kind of has a hold on me,”David told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“I feel like smoking is healthier if I had to pick from the two due to the sheer amount I vape. With cigarettes, it’s literally only when I drink or like the occasional dart in company. But with vapes, it’s all day.”

Another dual user from Melbourne Dirk Peterson told PEDESTRIAN.TV they had tried to use cigarettes as a way to quit vaping because they said vapes were “100 per cent more addictive”.

“I think vaping’s harder to give up,” Peterson said.

“It’s easier to separate yourself from situations where you smoke but most social situations now its acceptable to vape [even indoors]. I found it really difficult to not use other people’s vapes because you don’t have to leave an environment to do it.

Peterson also said when they’d tried to give up vapes the “full-on physical withdrawals” were worse than when they’d tried to stop smoking in the past because of the physical habits associated with vaping — you can clutch it and suck on it all the time if you want.

“I felt like the oral fixation was really hard to get around, as well as the nicotine. You know how much you want a cigarette, but because vapes are so passive and constant it’s really hard to tell what you’re missing.”

Vaping is more addictive than smoking

Research Assistant at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Sinan Brown said the reason some Australians were turning to cigarettes after vaping was because of how addictive vapes are.

“We see with youth in particular that it’s a gateway to tobacco smoking,” he told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“Our research showed people who used e-cigarettes first were three-times more like to use tobacco products subsequently [and] I think it would largely come down to the dose of nicotine.

A lot of e-cigarettes have higher nicotine concentration than normal cigarettes, so I’ve heard of cases of people who are trying to get off e-cigarettes by using cigarettes because they have less nicotine.”

Vape liquid can have anywhere from three to five times more nicotine than tobacco cigarettes. But because it is illegal to possess or sell nicotine vapes in Australia without a prescription, the products go largely unregulated and unlabelled.

Studies have found at least six out of 10 products labelled non-nicotine in fact did contain nicotine.

Brown said regardless of the nicotine format, inhaling it leads to longterm addiction that is harder to break the younger you start.

“Your brain is … highly plastic at a young age and if you set those neural pathways for addiction earlier, there is definitely an increased likelihood of addiction in later life,” he said.

“More people are picking it up so it has serious consequences for public health.” 

The government will crack down on vaping

The number of people who vape regularly in Victoria doubled from about 150,000 in 2019 to about 300,000 in 2022. Almost one quarter of those said they had never smoked cigarettes before grabbing a lolly stick. This is concerning for health experts because, after decades of tobacco smoking rates steadily declining, vapes have the potential to derail all that progress.

Quit Director Dr Sarah White said nicotine vapes, which are readily available, were “likely” to undo years of success in tobacco control.

“We have an estimated 77,200 never-smokers reporting they are currently using e-cigarettes and more than half of past year e-cigarette users are vaping nicotine,” she said.

“At a time when as a society we are trying to reduce preventable ill-health, this is a slow-motion train wreck for Victoria.”

The Federal Government announced last week it would introduce proposals for a swathe of reforms aimed at curtailing vape use.

“We need to understand where the current regulatory framework falls short and what action governments can take to move the dial,” federal health minister Mark Butler said on Wednesday.

The proposed reforms could include a blanket ban on the import of nicotine vape products and tougher laws around tobacco and vape advertising on social media.

But Cancer Council Victoria, Quit and VicHealth have urged the Federal Government to do more to stop imports, as well as introduce a retail licensing scheme to deter and penalise retailers for selling illegal nicotine vapes.

If I’m addicted to vapes or cigarettes, what can I do?

David said he was trying to cut back by limiting his vape use to social settings — like he used to with cigarettes.

“That way I can at least start with breaking the habit of vaping while I work or while I’m having coffee or reading,” he said.

“I justify it in my head like, ok this week is super busy at work so I can’t afford to quit this week cos I can’t afford the brain fog that comes from the withdrawal, but next week, that’s when I’ll quit vaping.”

Brown said there was no evidence to suggest using either vapes or cigarettes as a replacement for the other was an effective method for quitting.

These companies are incredibly smart and they spin this lie that [vapes] help people quit smoking but that’s not the case,” he said.

“[And] tobacco is the major killer so it’s not good that people are using it any amount.”

He said while there are a number of quitting tools and techniques, like trying to smoke “less” or using nictoine gum or patches instead, abstinence could be key.

There are proven and effective nicotine replacement therapies which have evidence for them and no harm associated with them which people should use, [but] most people do quit unaided so going cold turkey does work for the majority of people.”

So there you have it: cold turkey is the way.