Vaping Craze: The new crisis hitting schools in South Africa

E-cigarettes can contain a large dose of nicotine, a substance known to slow the development of brains in fetuses, children, and teens.

A study conducted by a professor of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT) shows alarming vaping trends among matriculants of affluent schools in South Africa, with the expert calling for the speedy implementation of vaping regulations.

The research, conducted by Professor Richard van Zyl-Smit at UCT, studied the vaping habits of over 5,500 high school students from several high-income schools.

High-income schools were selected taking into consideration that vaping products are expensive and, therefore, students at these schools would be more inclined to own such a device.

The study revealed very concerning numbers, finding that more than one in four matric learners are vaping.

Additionally, three out of 10 respondents said they use their electronic smoking device within an hour of waking, and nearly a quarter cannot get through a school day without vaping.

“These schools were chosen as a good starting point as they are the most likely to have high levels of vaping, but we didn’t expect it to be this high, and it’s very worrying,” said Van Zyl-Smit.

Van Zyl-Smit added that while the South African demographic health survey, released in 2016, showed that 2.5% of adolescents were vaping, this most recent study showed exceptionally higher figures than that.

“In some matric classes, we see as much as 30% of the total year group are vaping,” he said.

He also noted that the nicotine levels within the vaping liquids the students are inhaling are exceptionally high, and because of the pleasant flavours vapes offer, learners are exposing themselves to higher nicotine levels than what they would be if they were to smoke the odd cigarette.

Of the 5,500 students involved in the study, the majority said that they vape to deal with stress and anxiety, with very few participants pointing to social pressures as the reason for taking up the habit.

Van Zyl-Smit said that the study overall is very alarming and that schools need to pay more attention to vaping awareness and must clamp down harder on what seems to be an epidemic.

He also noted a significant concern around the habit is the discussion around the safety of vaping – especially when comparing them to traditional cigarettes.

He added that while there is evidence to argue both sides of the contentious debate, it’s one that shouldn’t even be considered in a high school environment, saying that the real discussion should be focused on nicotine and its effects on the adolescent brain.

“Whether vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes is not a debate that should be happening at school levels, and it’s irrelevant. The actual concern should be around exposure to nicotine. Adolescent brains have synaptic plasticity [that’s why teenagers learn new tasks much quicker than adults], and nicotine can interfere with that, hindering their learning development,” said Van Zyl-Smit.

Van Zyl-Smit called for the government to fast-track the implementation of regulations surrounding the vaping industry, as there are no guidelines or regulations for vaping production in South Africa.

The government has noted that vaping is a very grey area, and it has tabled a bill to regulate the sector.

Chief director for health promotion at the Department of Health, Dr Lynn Moeng-Mahlangu, said that the bill, when enacted, will be an ‘enabler’ for stricter smoking regulations in South Africa, with a particular focus on ‘new generation’ smokers.

She also flagged a growing concern over vaping among the youth. While she said the government wants to address this before the country ends up like many other countries where, in some cases, as many as 27% of young people are hooked on vaping, it may seem that we’re already at this point.

Van Zyl-Smit reiterated that any form of regulation is urgently needed and is appealing to the government to conduct up-to-date research on the vaping epidemic to help push through any relevant bill that will help address the issue.


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