What are e-cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes are battery operated devices that heat a liquid (or e-liquid) to produce a vapour to inhale. Using an e-cigarette is sometimes called 'vaping'.

E-liquid contains a range of chemicals or flavours, and often contains nicotine. E-cigarettes and e-liquids containing nicotine are prescription only medicines.

E-cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes and can be made to look like everyday items including highlighters, pens or USB memory sticks. Vapour from e-cigarettes does not usually have a strong odour but they may have a sweet smell depending on the flavour.  

How many people in NSW are using e-cigarettes?

In 2019, the NSW Population Health Survey found that:

  • 1.8% of NSW adults aged over 16 years of age had ever used an e-cigarette
  • 18.1% people aged 16 to 24 had ever used an e-cigarette.

​Data on teenage vaping from 20171 showed that:

  • 9.5% of students aged 12 to 15 years had used an e-cigarette
  • 20.7% of students aged 16 to 17 years had used an e-cigarette.

What are the health risks for young people using e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes can contain high levels of nicotine. Adolescence is a critical period for brain development and exposure to nicotine can have long-term health consequences, impacting memory, attention and learning2.  E-cigarettes are often labelled incorrectly and can contain nicotine, even when they claim not to.

Nicotine is highly addictive and research suggests that young people can become more easily addicted to nicotine than adults.3  Research also indicates that young people who use e-cigarettes may be more likely to go on to use regular cigarettes.4

E-cigarettes that do not contain nicotine are still not safe and can have negative, long-lasting health outcomes for young people.4  Vapours can contain the following: cancer-causing agents, toxins, heavy metals, and very fine particles that can cause adverse health effects.5

Although e-cigarette packaging can list some ingredients, it may not include all chemicals in the vapour and researchers have found that toxic metals from e-cigarettes may be released into the vapour when inhaled.6

E-cigarettes are often available in different flavours which can be appealing to young people. While some chemicals in e-liquid are also used in food production and are generally considered safe when eaten, this does not mean they are safe when they are inhaled directly into the lungs.5    

Selling e-cigarettes to a person under 18 years is illegal

Just like tobacco products, selling any e-cigarette or e-cigarette accessories to people under 18 years of age is illegal in NSW, regardless of whether the product contains nicotine or not.

If you suspect someone is selling e-cigarettes to minors, you can report it to NSW Health by completing the online reporting form or call the Tobacco Information Line on 1800 357 412.

Selling e-cigarettes containing liquid nicotine is illegal for people under 18 years

From 1 October 2021, e-cigarettes and e-liquids containing nicotine are prescription only medicines. This means pharmacists in community pharmacies are able to supply e-liquids and e-cigarettes (containing nicotine) to their customers (18 years and over) only if they have a valid prescription from a doctor.

For retailers other than pharmacies it will continue to be illegal to sell e-liquids and e-cigarettes that contain nicotine. This includes online sales. The sale of flavoured e-cigarettes (without nicotine) to adults is legal, however, these devices are regulated in a similar way to tobacco products, e.g. their display and advertising is banned. 

If you think a retailer (other than a pharmacy) is selling e-cigarettes that contain nicotine, please report it to NSW Health  or call the Tobacco Information Line on 1800 357 412. Information collected will help to guide the enforcement of tobacco and e-cigarette retailing laws by NSW Health Inspectors.

What can you do as a parent or caregiver?

There are ways you can help protect your children from e-cigarettes:

  • Talk to your teenager about why e-cigarettes are harmful for them. It is never too late to have the conversation.
  • Learn about the different types of e-cigarettes available and the risks associated with using these products.
  • Set a good example by being tobacco free.
  • Report those who are selling e-cigarettes to minors or selling e-cigarettes containing nicotine by completing the online reporting form or calling the Tobacco Information Line on 1800 357 412.

Nicotine poisoning

Too much nicotine from e-cigarettes can cause nicotine poisoning. If you think someone has been poisoned by liquid nicotine, please call the Poisons Centre on 13 11 26 immediately or 000 if it is an emergency. For more information see NSW Poisons Information Centre

Useful resources


  1. NSW School Students Health Behaviours Survey 2017, Centre for Epidemiology and Evidence, NSW Ministry of Health.
  2. Gotts JE, Jordt S-E, McConnell R, Tarran R. What are the respiratory effects of e-cigarettes? BMJ. 2019;366:l5275.
  3. Greenhalgh, EM, & Scollo, MM. InDepth 18B: Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). In Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH (editors) Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2017
  4. Byrne S, Brindal E, Williams G, Anastasiou KM, Tonkin A, Battams S and Riley MD (2018). E-cigarettes, smoking and health. A Literature Review Update CSIRO, Australia
  5. NHMRC. CEO Statement on Electronic cigarettes
  6. Zhao, D., Aravindakshan, A., Hilpert, M., Olmedo, P., Rule, A. M., Navas-Acien, A., & Aherrera, A. (2020). Metal/Metalloid Levels in Electronic Cigarette Liquids, Aerosols, and Human Biosamples: A Systematic Review. Environmental health perspectives 128(3), 36001
Current as at: Thursday 28 October 2021
Contact page owner: Centre for Population Health