Australia’s teenage smoking rates rise for first time in 25 years, research reveals

2 June 2023

By Cait Kelly, The Guardian

Data also finds an increase in vaping among 14 to 17-year-olds in what researchers warn is a clear ‘gateway’ to smoking

The proportion of teenagers smoking has increased for the first time in 25 years in a situation health experts have labelled “alarming”.

Data analysed by Cancer Council Victoria’s Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer (CBRC) has revealed a threefold increase in the proportion of 14 to 17-year-olds smoking tobacco in the past four years, from 2.1% in 2018 to 6.7% in 2022.

The research also revealed an increase in e-cigarette use. Fewer than 1% of 14 to 17-year-olds reported vaping in 2018, but that figure increased to 11.8% in 2022 and 14.5% in early 2023.

Sarah Durkin, the acting head of the CBRC and the lead researcher on the report, said the rise in smoking and vaping was threatening the work Australia had done to reduce smoking.

“It’s alarming,” Durkin said. “This is the first time we’ve seen an increase in teen smoking since the early- to mid-1990s.

“The earlier a person starts experimenting with cigarettes, the greater their likelihood of becoming a regular, long-term user. And we know cigarettes kill up to two in three long-term users.”

She said it was likely teenagers were using vapes, which use flavours to make the chemicals, before moving on to tobacco.

“Vaping can be a gateway into smoking,” Durkin said. “The pattern is really consistent with cohort studies that track young people over time and find that those who vape are three times as likely to take up smoking later.”

Between 2018 and 2022, the proportion of Australians smoking or vaping rose from 12.8% to 16.5%.

The share of people using both e-cigarettes and tobacco has increased across all age groups, with the steepest rises for those under 35. The percentage of 14 to 17-year-olds who smoke and vape has increased from 0.3% in 2018 to 4.4% in 2022.

Emily Banks, a public health physician from the Australian National University, said one of the biggest worries in public health was that vaping would reverse Australia’s strong smoking reduction rates.

“Any level of smoking among young people is extremely concerning,” Banks said. “Even very low levels of smoking significantly increase the risk of cancer and heart disease.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health also said the findings were “a concern”.

“These findings reinforce the importance of government action to reduce smoking and stamp out vaping – particularly among young Australians – through stronger legislation, enforcement, education and support,” the spokesperson said.

Last month the government announced it would crack down on vape use, banning all single-use disposable vapes, stopping the import of the devices and restricting flavours and colourful packaging.

Prof Tanya Buchanan, the Cancer Council Australia chief executive, said they “were relieved” the government had decided to act.

“Proposed ongoing reform to cigarettes includes expanding graphic health warnings and restricting product additives that mask the true harm of smoking,” she said.

“It is clear we are now facing a public health emergency. We have a rapidly closing window of opportunity before young Australians’ vaping and smoking behaviours become more entrenched. And we urge all governments to act now.”