Holding the smoke, students find new way to hide vaping

Attempts to combat vaping could have perverse outcomes as students try to avoid detection and organised criminals eye off a market that only recently became illicit.

An inquiry has been told schools are taking a health-focused approach to getting children to quit while a senior police officer has warned against criminalisation.

Students caught vaping at school were being offered health-based interventions, education department deputy secretary of student wellbeing Martin Graham told a NSW parliamentary committee on Friday.

“There's lot of vaping going on," he said.

“The direction is not just about the education for why you shouldn’t vape, but also, moving them onto cessation, so helping them to get off the vapes."

Mr Graham said vaping had been added to behavioural policies with principals "who know their kids best" entitled to suspend students.

Schools with a specific need for vaping detectors in toilets can request them, but they provided a false sense of security and could drive more dangerous behaviour.

“One that was brought to us by the young people and health professionals was suddenly a trend to try and hold the smoke in your lungs to avoid the detector … that’s just making things way worse,” Mr Graham said.

Enforcement since a crackdown started in January has primarily been handled by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and Border Force and, more locally, NSW Health.

NSW police were mainly interested in retailers with suspected links to organised crime, which assistant commissioner Scott Cook told the inquiry might take an increased foothold in a now-illicit market.

“The vape market, up until recently, was supplied on a legal basis … in other countries where these vapes are coming from, they’re all legal," he said.

Mr Cook said it was not known how much money organised criminal groups made from vapes while disputing claims that gangs controlled the market.

He suggested penalties around vaping be kept in the "civil space”, such as a licensing scheme under which suppliers could be threatened with cancellations.

“The last thing we want to see as police is criminalisation of vaping, particularly for young people, it will bring them into contact with the criminal justice system they will never get out of,” Mr Cook said.

The illicit market around tobacco and nicotine products with import restrictions was “nowhere near the prohibited drugs illicit market", he added.

Asked if police needed more power to control the sector, the assistant commissioner said: “no, not at all.”

In addition to sufficient search and seizure powers, police had “significantly higher priorities than doing enforcement work for vapes”, he said.

The committee's deputy chair, Hugh McDermott, suggested those priorities were not for police to decide, adding that children as young as 11 were becoming addicted to illegally sold vapes due to a lack of enforcement.

But Mr Cook said if that was the government’s position, then NSW Health should be resourced to do that properly.

Dr McDermott earlier noted industry representatives declined to appear at the inquiry.

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