Vaping has soared in popularity over the past few years in Australia, and it’s happened around the same time that many of us are stressed out of our bloody minds.
All of these events have occurred concurrently with a rising number of young people starting to use vapes as a form of stress and anxiety relief, but are vapes actually a solution or making our problems worse? And how have vapes been able to take over to become a crutch so quickly for young Australians? The answer lies in the powers of the tobacco industry.
In The Clutch Of A Vape
No one sets out to become addicted to vaping. For many young people, it’s just handed to them at a party and then all of a sudden they’re finding themselves thinking about vaping all of the time.
It feels like vapes are practically inescapable. From pubs, to morning trains stations, to house parties, you’re bound to see someone holding onto a vape and this can make starting to quit hard to resist.
Annabell, 20, grew up with smoking-related illnesses in her family, so she has never been tempted to pick one up, but vaping is still a part of her life as her girlfriend is heavily addicted.
“At one point she was buying several a week and the amount she was vaping was just crazy,” Annabell told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
“For a long time she kind of denied that it had any impact on her.”
This was until an incident where Annabell’s girlfriend became aware of the severity of her addiction.
The couple were with a group of friends and returned home from a night out partying. Once they were back at their friend’s house Annabell’s girlfriend discovered that her vape had run out.
She quickly descended into a panic asking everyone in the house for a vape and fell to her knees begging the group to find one for her. She then ran away from the house to a nearby park to try and find someone with a vape she could use.
After this incident Annabell’s girlfriend realised that vaping was no longer a fun social activity but rather an acute addiction.
Why Are Vapes So Addictive?
When you vape, you have receptors in your brain that light up when you’ve inhaled and this is because nicotine releases dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a chemical that makes you feel really good and is released when your brain senses you’re doing a fun activity. This could be anything from sex, to dancing, to cooking and activates the reward pathway in your brain making you want to do it again.
Nicotine is the primary addictive chemical in vapes but it doesn’t last in your body for very long, so once it’s left your system your brain is searching for that feeling of being lit up again by dopamine, and begins to crave the nicotine that’s in your vape.
Research from the Generation Vape report provided exclusively to PEDESTRIAN.TV found that feeling anxious or stressed was the second most common reason why young people are using vapes.
With so many conflicting pressures impacting young people right now, many are turning to vapes as a means to calm their anxiety, but is it actually helping?
Can Vapes Help With Anxiety?
Becky Freeman is an Associate Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney who has been working in tobacco control for the past 20 years.
She’s been researching how the tobacco industry influences young people through their advertising efforts, and has been working with the World Health Organisation to strengthen international collaborations to push back against tobacco and vape advertising.
She noted that although it may feel like vaping is helping with your anxiety it’s actually doing the opposite.
Freeman told PEDESTRIAN.TV “we know that one of the key sort of immediate health impacts of vaping is that it increases mental health issues like anxiety and depression.”
When you vape you need nicotine in your body to regain a feeling of ‘normal’ and when it leaves your body, it starts scrambling to feel normal again by craving the nicotine in your vape.
If you are vaping to help with stress or mental health we’re sorry to say it’s probably making it much worse.
Research has found a link between increased nicotine use and depression, which means the more nicotine you consume the higher your risk of depression, and it can actually make your symptoms of depression and anxiety much more acute.
“I think a lot of people don’t know [they’re addicted]. Maybe they’ve never been addicted to anything before and they’re using vapes quite socially on a Friday night or a Saturday night.
“They don’t buy their own, they’re just getting them from a friend that’s passed around the pub or something like this. But the next morning they might feel agitated, or like something’s missing, or that they can’t stop thinking about vaping,
“Those would be signs to me that you are facing an addiction,” said Freeman.
She also noted that many people have the same origin story with vaping and some quickly go down a path of addiction, others avoid it, and then some just take a little longer and will rejoin their friends on the addicted path later on.
Whatever path you’re currently on with vaping, it might not feel like you’re addicted, or that it’s causing you instant health impacts, but there are many side effects you might not have considered that can happen, like with another of Annabell’s friends, who after eight months of vaping, suddenly got nicotine poisoning.
“One day she vaped and ran to the bathroom and just like threw up all over the floor,” said Annabell.
This kept happening, like in the weeks following where the elevator doors opened at their university campus and her friend projectile vomited everywhere into the hallway.
It was soon after this that her friend realised that it was vaping that was making her sick.
So how did we get here? How did vapes all of a sudden start appearing everywhere and have us throwing up in elevators?
How Have Vapes Had Such A Rapid Rise In Australia?
If you’re under the age of 25 in Australia you’ve never been exposed to tobacco industry marketing.
You’ve probably only really seen plain packet cigarettes, you know that they’re expensive and it’s unacceptable to eat in restaurants filled with cigarette smoke. This is the success of tobacco control.
But recently, seemingly out of out of nowhere, this control started to slip as vapes started to take off.
“Around the same time as COVID restrictions started to relax, we saw this uptick in vaping,” said Freeman.
Almost overnight vapes became normalised and socially acceptable amongst young people and understanding this shift has been a focus of the Generation Vape report Freeman has been undertaking.
“When we talk to people in our focus groups and ask them, ‘Clearly, you’re very anti-smoking, those beliefs are really embedded, what about vaping?’
“And they say the product doesn’t smell like a cigarette. It doesn’t taste like a cigarette. It’s really available. It’s cheap. The government hasn’t done anything about it. My friends are all doing it. I hear it’s ‘quote, unquote, 95 per cent safer than smoking.”
Freeman says that the combination of vaping industry marketing mixed with products that contain enticing flavours, lax regulations and a highly addictive product like nicotine created a “perfect storm” for them to flood the market.
“If you’re a company looking to make millions of dollars, you actually couldn’t come up with a better product,” said Freeman.
Australia’s vaping laws have struggled to fight off the rise of vapes. There’s been loopholes where stores won’t disclose that a vape contains nicotine to be able to sell it in store, or manufacturers will change the package or the actual vape itself to be in line with new regulation.
The most recent legislation that was brought in this year has already seen hundreds of thousands of vapes seized across the country.
But research from the Generation Vape report has found that even though the awareness around the harms of vapes has increased, rates of vaping haven’t dropped in line with that awareness.
However with the rates of vapes potentially dropping from the market, it could be that the rates of quitting may catch up with awareness.
Vape Nation is a three part investigation into Australia’s vaping culture where we uncover why vaping has had such a colossal rise, the health impacts and how to quit for good.
Vape Nation was created in collaboration with the Australian Science Media Centre with support from the META Public Interest Journalism Fund and administered by the Walkley Foundation.