Tamar Kahn, Business Day
MP’s have been told that the use of e-cigarettes is “exploding” at wealthy schools and that regulation is needed to reduce adolescents’ access to vaping.
More than a quarter of matric pupils at wealthy high schools are vaping, and almost a quarter of those who use the devices say they cannot get through the school day without a hit, according to the preliminary findings of a pilot study. This report from Business Day.
The research, released on 2 November 2022, sheds light on the explosion of e-cigarette use among teens in parts of SA and comes as parliament is poised to consider tough new anti-tobacco laws that will for the first time regulate e-cigarettes.
“We have a significant problem,” said the study’s principal investigator, Richard van Zyl-Smit, deputy head of pulmonology at the University of Cape Town.
The pilot study findings, which have not been published in a peer-review journal, were made public to make MPs aware of the situation, he said.
“These data need to get to parliamentarians. We have to get vaping regulated to reduce access to adolescents,” he said during a webinar hosted by the health department.
The study included 5,583 pupils from grades eight to 12 at nine quintile-five public and private schools in Gauteng, Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu-Natal, who completed an online survey.
Quintile-five schools are located in well-off communities.
It found the prevalence of teenagers who said they had vaped in the past 30 days rose from 6.2% in grade 8 to 26.5% in grade 12.
In the worst-affected school, 32.3% of matric pupils had vaped in the past month.
Overall the survey found 15.3% of the teenagers reported that they had used e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days, 4% used inhaled tobacco products and 6.3% used cannabis.
The mean age at which teenagers started vaping was 14.7 years, compared with 14.2 years for tobacco products.
The prevalence of teen vaping identified in the high schools that participated in the pilot study stands in sharp contrast to the findings of the 2021 GATS-SA survey conducted by the Medical Research Council.
It found just 2.2% of people aged 15 or older used e-cigarettes. It found the use of e-cigarettes was highest among people aged between 15 and 24, at 3.1%.
Van Zyl-Smit emphasised that the pilot study was not nationally representative and e-cigarette use is expected to vary widely between communities. “It may be less of an issue in poorer schools, [but] it is still an issue in these high schools.”
A larger follow-up study is in the pipeline, which will include between 150 and 200 schools.
The pilot study suggests a worryingly high level of nicotine-addiction among the teenagers who vaped, he said, with 30% of them saying they reached for a puff within five minutes of waking up.
Tried to quit
Almost two-thirds of e-cigarette users reported using their device in the first hour of the day. A total of 23% of vapers said they could not go through the school day without using their devices and 29.5% of them reported feeling anxious or angry if they could not vape. More than half of them (54%) said they had tried to quit. A stark finding of the research was that almost half (48.4%) of the teenagers who vaped said their parents knew about their habit.
The Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill was tabled in parliament by health minister Joe Phaahla in September.
It proposes greater restrictions on smoking in public places, introduces plain packaging and picture warnings, bans vending machine sales, prohibits point of sale advertising, and for the first time regulates e-cigarettes and other new-generation products in much the same way as tobacco.
Vapour Products Association of SA (Vpasa) CEO Asanda Gcoyi declined to comment on the specifics of the study but said the industry body was concerned about youth vaping and its members do not sell to people under the age of 18.
“Unfortunately, we have no control over businesses that are not Vpasa members,” she said.
Vpasa supports regulation of the sector, she said.
A British American Tobacco SA spokesperson said no-one under the age of 18 should have access to tobacco or nicotine products, and the company supports regulation to prevent this happening.