'I sleep with it under my pillow.' We need to talk about the 'secret shame' of vaping.

In 2023, vaping has become the new, well, cigarette. 

Despite being illegal, there's no denying the rise in e-cigarette use in Australia, especially since the pandemic when many took up the habit.

But unlike the allure that characterised cigarette smoking decades ago, for many users, there's an underlying social stigma associated with vaping. 

And for several women who spoke to Mamamia, their vape use is leading to a kind of 'secret shame'.

Watch: How does smoking affect your face? Check out this video. Post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia

As Tayla shared, "The shame I feel is not from friends or family - in fact, my entire family vapes (including my mum who is an ex-smoker). But I actually feel really embarrassed to vape during the day in public."

Kayla adds, "Honestly, I just felt like the biggest loser doing it, which was enough for me to stop."

Whatever their reasons, many people keep the habit to themselves, choosing to vape in private or away from the eyes of loved ones and colleagues.

For those who aren't familiar, 'vapes' are battery-operated devices that use refillable tanks or disposable cartridges to heat liquid which users inhale.  


The liquid is a mix of chemicals and oils that can be combined with nicotine flavourings, such as chocolate and bubblegum. 

Vaping has surged in popularity over recent years, and like cigarettes, it's highly addictive.

And given how common it's become, it's surprising how many people seem desperate to hide the fact they're doing it.

Why do people keep vaping a secret?

While increased alcohol use was well documented during the pandemic, in reality, more adults took up vaping, leaning on it as their stay-at-home vice.

In the last three years, the amount of adults who vape has doubled and is most common in the 18-29 year age group, according to the Australian Tabacco Harm Reduction Association.

Take Georgie, for example. She started vaping during the four-month lockdown in Sydney. After being cigarette-free for 15 years, she tried a friend's vape  - and instantly became hooked.

"It was a slippery slope. It’s highly addictive, and you can do it anywhere without people knowing. I hid it from my husband for the first two months. Mostly while on the toilet. It’s coming up to two years, and I have tried to quit so many times. But there is always a ‘reason’."

"I’ve still managed to hide it from my kids, fortunately, and my eldest is nearly at the age where [many] kids start trying it. So that wouldn’t go down well when telling her not to do it. I have to do something about it. It’s gotten to the point of addiction where I sleep with it under my pillow and have a puff in the night like a baby would a dummy."

"As someone who has quit smoking before I feel like I could do it. But it’s just so easy to get away with it. And yes, I am very concerned with what it’s doing to my health!"


There's also Kayla, who started vaping at a girlfriend's hen's party.

"It was all downhill from there. Lockdown happened shortly after and I was bored and kept doing it for over a year."

After being in lockdown with her flatmate who vaped, Genevieve also took up the habit. 

"Then I moved back home and was too ashamed to do it in front of my parents and that forced me to quit," she shared. "Although I do the cheeky ‘has anyone got a vape’ after a couple of drinks."

Emily Jenkinson, Cancer Council NSW Lead of Tobacco Control, said the problem lies in the fact that people, particularly between the ages of 14 and 24 years, see vaping as something they can stop at any time. While they tend to worry for the health of their friends, that doesn't necessarily extend to themselves. 

"This is until they begin experiencing signs of nicotine addiction, like vaping by yourself, or when you’re stressed or anxious, or just when driving from A to B."

"When they begin to realise that vaping is an addictive behaviour, this is when feelings of shame or anxiousness may start to show and they may start to hide their vaping from people around them."

Interesting, huh?

"Vaping has very quickly transitioned from a social behaviour or something you do while out with friends, to an addictive behaviour, which is quite frightening," she adds.


What makes vaping so hard to quit?

In an interview with Mamamia, leading nicotine addiction specialist Professor Renee Bittoun said there is an incredible amount of misinformation surrounding vapes, including the effects they can have long-term.

While it's meant to be less lethal than cigarettes, research proves that it has the same - if not worse - effects on your health.

"There are all different types of e-cigarettes on the market, but the most contemporary ones have become so good at delivering nicotine right down deep into an area of the lungs - which hasn't happened in the past," Professor Bittoun shared.

"They're way more advanced than the older styles, which delivered nicotine into the upper airways."

"When you have it down in the depths of your lungs, that's where your arteries and arterial blood is picking up oxygen - now it's picking up nicotine, instead."

"They're now incredibly efficient. The speed of delivery of nicotine is massive, and it makes it much more addictive."

Meaning that yes, it becomes even harder to quit.

As 22-year-old Tayla told Mamamia, "I do have an addiction - which took me over a year to admit - so I vape every moment I can. I have to have it with me everywhere, even though I don't vape during work hours and if I'm in the office. If it's missing from my bag, I start panicking and counting down the hours until I have it again."

While Tayla has tried to quit numerous times, and gone a few weeks without one (or just an occasional puff from a friend's vape), she said that for her, quitting is impossible.


"I managed to go without one for three weeks by not going out and saying no when the offer came my way, but on a really stressful day, I gave in and bought a cheap mini one that wouldn't last long. But it was too late, and it was too alluring," she said.

"I was hooked again. I'm starting to set new goals for the rest of this year as I finish up what's already on my list and I don't even want to write down 'quit vaping' because I don't want to give it up. I admit it, I'm a lost cause."

As Jenkinson reiterates, nicotine in both cigarettes and vapes is a highly addictive chemical that affects the reward (dopamine) pathways in the brain and causes the urge to smoke or vape.

"If you are addicted to nicotine, you’ll get a nicotine withdrawal when you try to quit. This could include strong cravings to vape, feeling irritable or annoyed, inability to concentrate and trouble sleeping."

She goes on to say that given the high levels of nicotine in vapes, it’s not surprising the amount of young people that may find themselves addicted. 

"Vapes are created to be addictive because [they] ensure customers are coming back for more. Not because they want to, but because they’re addicted."

And it's more than a chemical dependence.

Experts say your brain actually acknowledges when you're in a particular setting and controls your craving for nicotine because it knows you'll be able to feed your cravings in a different situation. 

It sounds wild - but that's why so many people are 'social smokers'.

"I used to be a social smoker, but then I became a social vaper," shares Luana. 

"The thing about vapes is, well, they’re easier to come by than cigarettes and not as expensive as a packet of smokes - so before when I’d bum a smoke, I couldn’t continue the filthy habit at home because I didn’t own then. But with vapes, they’re cheap so you don’t bum them, you buy them and them they are just… around."

For Professor Bittoun, the motive behind the highly addictive vape is pretty clear. 

"If you think of the tobacco companies, this is ideal for them. It's a whole new group of consumers - for life."

So, what's the best way to quit vaping?

If you’re wanting to quit smoking or vaping, as a first step, Jenkinson recommends speaking to your doctor or health care professional and seeking support. 

"They will provide you with guidance and may help you access proven effective quit smoking supports like patches, gum, or medication," she said.

"You can also call Quitline and speak to a trained quitting counsellor to help you through your journey and manage cravings."


"It’s also important to talk to the people close to you so they can support and encourage you through the ups and downs of quitting. Quitting vaping or smoking can be hard, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Quitting is the best thing you can do for your health."

"When it comes to success rates of quitting, many people take a few attempts before they can quit completely and that’s very normal."

For Kayla, it all came down to shifting her mindset - she quit cold turkey, and hasn't looked back.

"I've been trying to practice 'discipline' this year across certain areas of my life and this was one of those things. I know it sounds simple, but it really just came down to a mindset shift."

Jenkinson adds, "Nicotine vapes are illegal in Australia yet they are readily available in corner stores, petrol stations, and easily ordered online. The Government needs to do more to stop the flood of products entering through our borders and ensure vaping products are only accessible through a pharmacy for those who may be struggling to quit." 

"If vapes weren’t available on every street corner, we wouldn’t be seeing so many young people struggling with nicotine addiction. We have the evidence to show the harms of vaping, so it’s time to see action."

If you're a vape user, can you relate to any of these women's stories? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty/Mamamia.

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