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E-cigarettes: general information

E-cigarettes, also known as ‘vapes’, are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid (e-liquid) until it becomes an aerosol. When users breathe in this aerosol it is called ‘vaping’. Research shows that vaping is harmful to health and people who don’t smoke can become dependent on e-cigarettes containing nicotine.



What’s in e-cigarette aerosol and e-liquids?

The aerosol from e-cigarettes contains hundreds of chemicals: some are known to be harmful to inhale and many haven’t been tested at all.

Most e-cigarettes and e-liquids contain nicotine, even if they don’t state it on the label.  Nicotine is addictive and vaping can lead to nicotine dependence in people who don’t smoke.

E-cigarettes commonly contain  propylene glycol or glycerine, and flavourings. Harmful chemicals have been found in e-liquids and e-cigarette aerosol, including chemicals known to cause cancer, such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein. Heavy metals such as aluminium, nickel and lead can shed from e-cigarettes’ inside surfaces and heating coils and be breathed in when vaping. People who vape also inhale tiny particles that can lodge deep in the lung.


Are the contents of e-cigarettes and e-liquids regulated by government?

In Australia, laws that regulate the safety of other products like food and medicines do not apply to e-cigarettes except when they are prescribed.  That means the making of, contents and labelling of e-cigarettes bought outside a pharmacy are not regulated.

However, devices purchased from an Australian pharmacy (if a health professional prescribes e-cigarettes to help someone stop smoking) are regulated and have some basic quality and safety standards.  For example, e-cigarettes bought on prescription are not allowed to contain certain chemicals that are known to cause harm when inhaled.  However, the regulations do not exclude chemicals that have not been tested and might be harmful, so even prescribed nicotine vaping products cannot be considered safe.


Are e-cigarettes legal?

 In Australia, different laws apply to e-cigarettes that contain nicotine and e-cigarettes that don’t contain nicotine.

E-cigarettes and e-liquids that contain nicotine can only be sold to people with a valid prescription, and may only be sold in pharmacies (not retail stores).  It is illegal to buy an e-cigarette or e-liquid that contains nicotine without a valid prescription. 

In Australia, it is also illegal to:

  • sell an e-cigarette device or accessory (including e-liquid) to a person under 18 years old, whether or not it contains nicotine;
  • use an e-cigarette in a legislated smokefree area, whether or not it contains nicotine.

In Western Australia, it is illegal to sell an e-cigarette device to anyone (regardless of whether it contains nicotine),  unless the device is sold  by a pharmacy and the person buying the device has a valid prescription.


Are e-cigarettes safe?

No. Research shows that e-cigarette aerosol can be harmful to health and people who don’t smoke can become dependent on e-cigarettes containing nicotine.

Researchers have concluded that e-cigarettes present very real dangers to children and young people.  The increasing use of e-cigarettes by young people is concerning as:

  • people who have never smoked who use e-cigarettes are more likely to take up smoking than people who do not use e-cigarettes
  • nicotine may change the structure and function of the brain while it is still developing.

E-cigarettes can cause:

  • Lung injury ​
  • Burns and injuries
  • Seizures
  • Increased indoor air pollution​
  • Environmental waste and fires​.

And, if the e-cigarette or e-liquid contains nicotine, they can cause:

  • Nicotine poisoning; young children are most at risk and can become very sick or even die if they accidentally swallow e-liquid ​
  • Addiction​.

Evidence suggests that a range of other health effects may be related to e-cigarettes and research is ongoing.  As e-cigarettes have only become widely used in the past decade or so, it will take many more years before the long-term health effects of vaping become fully known.


Can e-cigarettes harm the environment?

Yes. Discarded broken e-cigarettes can leach chemicals into soil and water, be eaten by animals, or puncture, explode or burn . There are no recycling programs for e-cigarettes.  Most are made of single-use plastic and contain lithium-ion batteries that cannot be removed and can cause fires in waste facilities and landfills.


Can electronic cigarettes help with quitting smoking?

There are other proven safe and effective options to help people stop smoking.  E-cigarettes have not been proven to be safe or effective for quitting smoking.  For some people, using nicotine e-cigarettes may help them quit but more research is needed into the harms and benefits of using them for this purpose. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommends doctors prescribe nicotine vaping products only when a person has not succeeded at quitting when using other stop smoking medications . They are prescribed on the condition that they are used together with behavioural counselling, such as that provided by the Quitline.


Research shows the best way to stop smoking for good is if you:

  1. Speak with a general practitioner (GP). A GP can discuss options and provide a script for subsidised stop smoking medication like nicotine patches, lozenges or gum or prescribed tablets. See What to ask your GP.

  2. Talk to Quitline (13 7848). Quitline counsellors are qualified in helping people break free from smoking. Quitline counsellors help build and sustain a person’s motivation to quit and help them create a stop smoking plan that suits them. Read more about how Quitline can help.

  3. Use stop smoking medication, like the nicotine patch and lozenges or prescribed stop smoking tablets, to help manage cravings and feelings of nicotine withdrawal.

 

Last updated September 2022.

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