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Fantasy figures that cloud the real issues in the teen vaping debate

If 65% of Australia’s teenagers are vaping, where are they all? And, you might ask, where are they getting their vapes, since nicotine vapour products are effectively banned in Australia.

And the answer, of course, is that the figure is a fantasy. Which leaves the very real question why one major news provider in the country was last week spreading the sensational notion that over 65% of 14-17-year-olds were vaping away like Popeye with his pipe.

In the next age group up, the 18-24s, it was apparently 39%. Maybe most alarming of all (to the unquestioning reader), the use of e-cigs by non-smokers was said to have quadrupled in just six years. Which doesn’t mean so much if you’re not told the baseline figure – four times none is still none, and four times not very many is not very many.

Neither does that bald statistic tell you whether these vapers are non-smokers precisely because they’ve switched to e-cigs instead, which could be glossed as good news. Which is obviously not what the media outlet in question wants you to hear.

The figures purport to come from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s 2019 National Drug Household Strategy Survey. Which is about as official as it gets.

But you know what they say about lies, damned lies and statistics and some of it is true. Statistics can be manipulated to mean almost anything you want them to mean, especially if your audience is not very statistically literate. Even more so, perhaps, if the reporter isn’t very statistically literate either. And, let’s be honest, most journalists aren’t.


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    Prevailing public narrative


    The shock figures quoted above help sell newspapers, and they undoubtedly help maintain the prevailing public narrative about a supposed “epidemic” of teenage vaping. But are they remotely accurate or even honest?

    Look more closely and you’ll see that they are based on a definition of vapers that includes all those who have tried an e-cigarette, maybe just one puff out of curiosity, some time in the past year. In some cases, the reported “e-cigarette users” include all those who say they have ever tried one in their life.

    According to Coral Gartner, head of the Nicotine and Tobacco Regulatory Science Research Group at the University of Queensland, who has surely studied the matter rather more closely than the average reporter, the real rate of teenage vaping in Australia – those who have used an e-cigarette at least once in the past year – is 1.8%.

    So where on earth did that 65% figure come from?

    That, once you dig it out, is actually the proportion of adolescents who have ever used an e-cigarette who reported having never smoked when they first used one. An interesting statistic in itself, perhaps. But not remotely related to the actual number of playground vapers.

    So did an actual 1.8% become a reported 65% out of incompetence or wilful misrepresentation of the facts? Either way, it’s a pretty poor basis for regulatory decisions to be taken on. Yet it’s exactly the kind of misinformation you’ll hear quoted by decisionmakers everywhere.

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    Aidan Semmens