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Elanora State School stops automatic suspensions for vaping in favour of education with positive results

Vape devices

They’re bright, taste sweet and can devastate the lungs of young people.

Governments, schools and parents are grappling with the rapid uptake of vaping across Australia.

The federal government banned the importation of the electronic smoking devices in May.  

But the practice remains “incredibly high” among young people aged between 12 and 17, according to research commissioned as part of a Queensland parliamentary inquiry into reducing vaping. 

As children continue to get their hands on the illegally-imported devices, at least one school has taken a different approach to enforcing their usage.

Schools ‘struggling’

For much of 2022, staff at Elanora State School, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, had a zero-tolerance approach to vaping.

Students caught in the act were immediately suspended.

But it didn’t take long for parents and teachers to realise punitive methods were not sustainable. 

The policy resulted in 52 students being suspended and a huge plumbing bill, due to students flushing the devices down toilets to avoid being caught. 

Principal Rochelle Lewis said the school was struggling to deal with the issue.  

So she reached out to parents for help.

“We decided that a hardline approach wasn’t necessarily the way to go,” she said.

Three-step process

Ms Lewis said the school settled on an educational approach, so that the young people were well-aware of the dangers associated with vaping. 

She said all students were involved in the first stage of the process: a 70-minute education session on how harmful vaping was, different forms of peer pressure and self-regulation.

Then, if a student was caught vaping, they were made to complete a two-week program during lunch breaks.

“I’m not going to lie, the students found it difficult in that they didn’t want to give up their lunch breaks,” Ms Lewis said.

“But it was part of the consequence for them bringing these vapes into the school.”

If a student is caught again, the third step in the process is completing individual education sessions for a month with Youth Drugs and Alcohol Advice (YoDAA) and the school nurse.

Ms Lewis said no student had made it this far in the process, which also meant no students had been suspended for vaping so far this year. 

“We’ve had 12 students through the program this year, and none of them have reoffended,” she said.

She said it was important to support students who become addicted to the nicotine used in vapes.

“We need to be aware … that if we have young people addicted to substances … it’s about supporting them through that, and allowing those addiction programs to run their course, so that students can make decisions around that,” she said.

Still Australia's Favourite Jelly Bean

Unprecedented use

Following promising early results, Elanora State High School has shared the program with other Queensland schools. 

“We’ve been happy to share … there’s no point recreating the wheel,” Ms Lewis said.

In 23 years in education, Ms Lewis has never encountered a problem like vaping.

Unlike cigarettes, which affected a smaller portion of student body, students across the board had been caught smoking vapes.

“I have academic students and sports excellent students who are also feeling drawn into vaping … as something that they want to try,” she said. 

“It lures them in with all the flavours, the bubble gum and the grape and the cherry … because it doesn’t feel like smoking, but it is as dangerous as [cigarettes] are.

“They’re sweet. They’re candy-like … and they want to try it.”

Ms Lewis said vapes were also harder to detect than cigarettes.

“The toilets had become a haven for students, and it’s very hard to govern whether or not they are or … are not doing it. Unlike cigarettes, it’s hard to smell and hard to detect,” she said. 

“It became an issue then where students didn’t want to go to the toilet, because this is where children were congregating.”

Queensland to deliver new report

Queensland parliamentary inquiry is set to table a report on vaping later Thursday.

The Queensland Health and Environment Committee’s deputy chair, MP Robert Molhoek, told the ABC the committee found that the state government should continue supporting a ban on vaping.

But Mr Molhoek — who said he knew of seven illicit vape retailers in his electorate alone — said he disagreed with the ban.

“My concern is there are millions of illegal vapes being imported into the country now, and that will continue to happen,” he said.

“Of the vapes that have been seized, more than 90 per cent have been found to contain nicotine, often at higher than safe levels — they’re being sold as nicotine-free.”

He said he would like to see vapes heavily regulated, with retailers requiring a licence, rather than a blanket ban. 

“I would prefer that there are no e-cigarettes available, but I think historically we’ve seen that prohibition never really works,” Mr Molhoek said. 

“I’m inclined to support a view that we should heavily regulate it.”

He said using vapes as a device to quit smoking was an “absolute failure”.  

“Not that I want to be seen to be promoting it, but I’m not convinced that border control is going to do a better job of seizing supplies at the border.”  

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