‘Russian roulette’: Teens suffer seizures, vomiting after using Snapchat vapes

9 July 2023

By Mary Ward, The Sydney Morning Herald

Health authorities have raised the alarm after six young people presented to NSW emergency departments within days of each other experiencing symptoms including seizures, loss of consciousness and vomiting after vaping.

NSW Health understands some of the vapes were purchased from sellers on Snapchat, a social media app that sends disappearing messages.

A memo was sent to South West Sydney Local Health District hospital doctors following the spate of incidents, which occurred between June 21 and 29, the majority in the local area.

Subsequent analysis of the products showed they contained nicotine.

Last year, a Blue Mountains Grammar School senior student had an extended seizure in the school’s toilets which was found to have been caused by inhaling a large dose of nicotine while vaping.

 

Under current Australian law, nicotine vapes may only be purchased by an adult with a prescription, and it is illegal to sell any vaping product to a minor.

However, advocates have raised concerns that many vapes for sale in Australia fail to disclose that they contain nicotine, and surveys of young people have consistently revealed teenagers can easily purchase vapes from convenience stores, friends, and on apps such as Snapchat and TikTok.

Between January and March this year, NSW Health seized more than 92,000 e-cigarette products containing nicotine being illegally sold by retailers.

 

“NSW Health is urging parents to be aware of vaping among young people and encourages having early conversations to help discourage it,” a spokesperson for the health department said in a statement.

They added that NSW Health was “increasingly concerned” by harmful health effects associated with vapes, particularly for young people.

”If parents or carers are concerned someone has been poisoned by liquid nicotine, call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 immediately. If they have collapsed or are not breathing, immediately call triple zero for an ambulance,” it said.

Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA), realised how easily teenagers could buy vapes on Snapchat while running one of his school education workshops in Sydney.

“I had a couple of girls who came up to me a while ago who said, ‘Do you want to see how easy it is to buy vapes?’” Dillon recalled.

“It literally only took minutes for someone to meet them at the local train station and sell them 50 vapes. Now you don’t even need to go somewhere to get them, they will drop them to you.”

Dillon stressed teenage vaping was by no means clustered in a certain geographic area, or socio-economic strata. “It’s everywhere,” he said.

The NSW Health spokesperson noted vapes for sale in the state may contain other dangerous chemicals, including those found in weedkiller and nail polish remover.

A 2019 ANU analysis of e-cigarettes for sale in Australia found, of the 243 unique chemicals found in products, 38 were listed poisons and three exceeded cut-off levels for the poisons standard.

Some vapes tested in the study contained acetone and formaldehyde.

Professor Brian Oliver, a research leader at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research who focuses on respiratory health, said flavoured vapes contained “a whole cocktail of chemicals”, the specifics of which constantly change as manufacturers promote new tastes and products.

“It’s the new version of Russian roulette, but the players don’t know they are playing,” Oliver said.

“You can find the same sort of toxic chemicals in a cigarette as you do in an e-cigarette, but the difference is cigarettes are regulated.”

Oliver said overseas disposable vape manufacturers often sought out chemicals used for flavouring food without considering whether the chemical is safe when heated and vapourised.

“There are thousands of different flavours of vapes; nobody has tested all of them,” he warned.

In May, federal Health Minister Mark Butler announced a raft of regulatory changes for the sale of e-cigarettes intended to crack down on the widespread black market which has allowed nicotine vapes to be easily illegally purchased.

The changes, funded in the 2023-24 budget, promise an end to the importation of non-prescription vapes, a ban on disposable vapes and will mandate “pharmaceutical-like” packaging, restricting coloured and flavoured products, which anti-vaping advocates say promote vaping to young people.

Anita Dessaix, director of cancer prevention and advocacy at the Cancer Council, said the recent spate of adverse reactions indicated that governments needed to implement the proposed changes as soon as possible.

“I’m very, very saddened to hear about this, but, unfortunately, I am not surprised,” she said of the incidents.

The Cancer Council and University of Sydney’s 2021 Generation Vape survey of about 720 teenagers aged 14 to 17 found 32 per cent had vaped at least once, while 16 per cent had vaped in the past 30 days. More than 80 per cent of users described accessing vapes as “easy”.

Since 2015, the annual NSW Population Health Survey has shown vaping is most popular among young people, with 16.5 per cent of people aged 16 to 24 identifying as a current user in 2021-22, more than triple the proportion of people aged 35 to 44.

Dessaix said teenagers purchasing vapes over social media would often go in together to bulk order at a lower per-unit price.

In addition to acute reactions to large doses of nicotine, such as seizures, Dessaix said the Cancer Council was aware of young people becoming “nic-sick”: experiencing symptoms such as head spins and breathlessness after vaping. Schools and parents have also raised concerns about behaviour issues caused by nicotine addiction.