HUNTER principals are concerned about the number of students bringing e-cigarettes to school, saying teenagers are easily obtaining disposable devices that look like textas and vaping without understanding the long term health risks.
NSW Secondary Principals' Council Hunter president Mark Snedden, who is also principal at Kotara High, said his Hunter and Central Coast colleagues were reporting students from years seven to 12 bringing e-cigarettes to school.
"Before the Christmas holiday break it wasn't an issue - I'm sure it was happening, I'm not being ignorant - but it's just exploded post the Christmas break," Mr Snedden said.
"The worrying thing is young people are actually seeing it as a safer option to tobacco without actually understanding the implications of what they're doing.
"We really don't know what they're ingesting and nor do they."
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E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that deliver an aerosol by heating a solution, which users breathe in.
The aerosol is referred to as vapour and using an e-cigarette is known as vaping.
There are a wide variety of devices and liquid solutions.
The solutions may contain toxic chemicals, including those that add flavour, plus sometimes contain nicotine, even if they're labelled as nicotine free.
It's illegal to use, sell or buy nicotine for use in e-cigarettes.
Mr Snedden said most students appeared to be importing disposable e-cigarettes online from overseas and paying less than $80 for a pack of 10, although he had heard unconfirmed reports that some students were buying them from in-person retailers.
Some devices contain up to five per cent nicotine.
"The problem is some of the disposable ones they're importing, they look like a really thin highlighter or mascara tube and they have 600 to 800 puffs in them and then basically you throw them in the bin," he said.
"They're run off like a watch battery.
"That's the main one we're seeing them with and the difficulty of catching them is the vape sort of goes and dissipates very very quickly and you just get a scent of whatever they're smoking.
"But they really seem to be targeted at young people and non-smokers, because the flavours in them are very similar to what the girls use in their lip balms."
Despite being brightly coloured, they're also easy to hide.
"Those rechargeable ones with the coil in them that heats the coil up and you put the juice in? They look nothing like that.
"They are so small. You can have ten in a pencil case and if you just looked in there quickly you'd think they're 10 different coloured textas."
He said one parent mistakenly thought a device was a USB.
The Department of Health said even though scientists were still learning about e-cigarettes, they could not be considered safe.
"Hazardous substances have been found in e-cigarette liquids and in the aerosol produced by e-cigarettes, including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein, which are known to cause cancer," it advised.
"Some chemicals in e-cigarette aerosols can also cause DNA damage. E-cigarettes do not produce the tar produced by conventional cigarettes, which is the main cause of lung cancer.
"However, many scientists are concerned that using e-cigarettes could increase risk of lung disease, heart disease and cancer."
The department said research also showed a strong association between the use of e-cigarettes by non-smoking young people and future smoking.
It also said many e-cigarette users appeared to be continuing to use conventional tobacco products at the same time, which could expose them to higher levels of toxicants.
Hunter New England Health (HNEH) director of drug and alcohol clinical services Professor Adrian Dunlop said young people tended to experiment.
"If you look across all of the substances, cannabis, tobacco, alcohol, even other drugs, the highest use tends to be in younger populations and the older you get, use tends to drop off decade after decade of life," Professor Dunlop said.
"Quite possibly it's about 'Why? Because it's there', but maybe there's something particular about social use of these devices that is attractive in a way that other drug use may not be."
"The biggest concern by far is we just don't have data on the safety or long term potential harms of vaporised devices.
"In conjunction with that, especially with adolescents, we know adolescence is a very important time for brain development - brain development continues up to the mid 20s."
He said nicotine was a stimulant, which raises blood pressure and heart rate and addiction to it could have a negative impact on lifestyles and finances.
He welcomed more research into long-term effects of vaping and the government moving towards regulating the market, so users knew exactly what they were ingesting.
"Banning often doesn't seem to work, you create a black market, so then the challenge is getting the regulation right."
Mr Snedden said across the region, principals were seeing around double the number of students trying vaping that they would expect to see experiment with tobacco.
"It's definitely a lot more widespread than just the traditional having a smoke in the bathroom, definitely," he said of usage.
"For us as principals, to think we're on top of this would be quite ignorant. I think it's much further spread than we think.
"The whole demographic across the board of students seem to be experimenting, it's not just the kids that are going to - that small percentage that will experiment with - tobacco.
"This is quite big and I think we're only just scratching the surface of how big it is.
"Because they're easy to get, they're importing them themselves, they're selling them to each other - you can't go and buy cigarettes if you're 14."
Mr Snedden said principals had received "excellent" support and information from the Department of Education about responding to vaping and had been advised to enforce the suspension and expulsion policy, and contact police if they caught students "dealing".
He said he spoke almost every week at assembly about vaping and the disciplinary consequences and had included information about it in the school's newsletter and website.
He's also brought devices to parents and citizens meetings.
"Parents have been extremely supportive," he said.
"Parents are extremely shocked when their kids are getting caught with it because it's just out of the blue. There's no smell."
Mr Snedden said vaping was a "societal concern" that needed to be managed with parents and the wider community.
"We need to combat it because you don't know where this is going to lead in terms of experimentation - and like I keep saying, we don't know what's in them," he said.
"It's a real community thing that we need to stand together on, otherwise it's going to get out of hand."
St Pius X College at Adamstown wrote to families last month, saying that vaping or being in possession of vapes would result in external suspension and selling vapes at school or while in uniform may result in expulsion.
"Students who are in the company of others who vape will be regarded as equally guilty and will receive similar consequences," the letter said.
Diocese of Maitland Newcastle director of Catholic schools Gerard Mowbray said schools were aware that vaping was "becoming an increasing societal problem" and was not tolerated on school grounds.
"However, equally important is our approach to educating students and their parents and carers about the dangers of vaping and other drug use," he said.
"Catholic schools value our role in shaping young men and women who are equipped to make informed and responsible decisions on a range of important issues, both during their schooling years and as adults."
He said schools presented students with facts about contemporary issues and provided reliable information to families to guide conversations at home.
"We know that students are curious and that sometimes, a simple 'no' is not enough," he said.
"As such, we provide an environment where students are encouraged to engage in two-way conversations with staff and when relevant, subject-matter experts, to ask questions and learn more about ramifications and implications, rather than simply being lectured not to make certain choices."
Youth mental health support service Headspace Newcastle will present on April 22 a free webinar for parents and carers about vaping, led by HNEH drug and alcohol clinical services clinical research coordinator Mel Jackson.
Headspace Newcastle community development officer Byron Williams said the service usually received around 90 registrations for its webinars, but had received 400 for the vaping session from as far away as Sydney.
As of Wednesday, the service had made another 200 spaces available.
Mr Williams said the Headspace family and friends reference group, which helps guide the topics the service covers in its community forums, had suggested looking at vaping.
"It just seems like it's something that's crept up and is all of a sudden quite big... it's happened in the past year but has ramped up since the start of this year with becoming more on our radar," Mr Williams said.
"The way to deal with the issue is to become informed on it. We're definitely not the experts on vaping which is why we've engaged HNEH to facilitate the discussion and try and give parents a bit of confidence to have that discussion with young people in their lives."
He said the situation was similar to parents feeling "a little at sea" when their children started using social media.
"Young people were taking it up in droves and parents and carers and other people were left behind not knowing how safe is it, what is cyber-bullying, what is social media, all that sort of stuff, so it's just trying to play that catch up game and become informed."
Mr Williams said vaping seemed to be "all pervasive".
He said it used to be more common to see adults vaping because they were trying to stop smoking tobacco.
"But what we're seeing now is people who haven't smoked before coming from the other end and taking up vaping," he said.
"The concerning thing is that people are not stepping down from cigarettes, they're stepping up to vaping.
"The other concerning thing is the way that young people are like 'cinnamon is my flavour' or 'bubblegum is my flavour' - it all seems like confectionery."
NSW Health Alcohol and Other Drugs Information Service: 1800 250 015
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