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No significant change in current child vapers, addiction fears unjustified: ASH survey

May 19, 2023

Photo: iStock

A new survey by health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has found no significant change between 2022 and 2023 in the proportion of 11-17 year olds currently vaping (6.9% in 2022 and 7.6% in 2023) or smoking (4.8% in 2022 and 3.6% in 2023).

However, the proportion of children who have experimented with vaping has grown significantly since last year, up from 7.7 per cent to 11.6 per cent, the survey carried out by YouGov for the health charity has found.

Nearly three quarters (73%) say their first vape was given them, two thirds by a friend, but for children who currently vape, nearly three quarters (72%) say they usually buy their vapes, most commonly from a corner shop (26%).

Children are most aware of vape promotion in shops which is also where exposure has grown most rapidly, up from 37 per cent last year to 53 per cent in 2023. Other sources of promotion are also up but less so, including online (24% to 32%), and buses (9% to 11%) while the change in awareness of promotion on billboards is not significant (12% to 14%).

“We need to stem the tide of child vape experimentation and the government’s investment in a crackdown on illegal underage sales of vapes is a vital first step. But enforcement on its own won’t do the trick without tougher regulation to address the child friendly promotion of these cheap and attractive products,” Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said.

“The ASH youth survey demonstrates the rapid growth of in-store promotion of vapes, using brightly coloured pack displays, reminiscent of cigarette displays from yesteryear. The evidence is clear, government needs to take strong action to prevent the marketing of vapes to children.”

The survey found that the growth in vaping is due to the increasing popularity of single use, disposable vapes. In 2021 current child vapers were least likely to vape disposables (7.7%), but in 2022 they became the most used (52%) and use has continued to grow to 69 per cent in 2023.

Elf Bar remains the most popular brand, used by twice as many as the nearest competitor Lost Mary (25%) which is made by the same company as Elf Bar, followed by Elux, Geek Bar,and Crystal.

Unfounded fear

At the same time, the survey has found no evidence to justify the fears that vaping is leading a whole generation to be addicted to nicotine. Most of the 20.5 per cent of young people who have ever vaped have only vaped once or twice or used to vape (12.9%), or use less than once a week (3.9%) with 1.8 per cent saying they vape between daily and weekly and 2 per cent every day.

The majority (63%) of those who have tried vaping once or twice have never smoked, while the majority (71%) of current vapers have tried smoking.

ASH said this is consistent with evidence from other sources which find that it is more likely that there is a ‘common liability’ in substance use for adolescents, rather than that vaping is proving to be a gateway into smoking.

‘Just to give it a try’ is still the most common reason given for using an e-cigarette (40%), followed by ‘other people use them so I join in’ (19%) then ‘I like the flavours’ (14%) with a small minority saying they think they’re addicted (3.2%).

Growing misperception

The role that vaping can play as the most effective aid in helping adult smokers to quit is acknowledged, which is why funding has been provided for one million smokers to receive free vape kits over the next two years to help them ‘swap to stop’. The potential for this is clear as although adult vaping continues to grow year on year mainly among ex-smokers to prevent relapse or current smokers trying to cut down or quit, more than one in four (27%) of adult smokers have never tried vaping. Only 5.7 per cent of adult never smokers have ever vaped, and only 1.1 per cent of never smokers currently vape, while 11.5 per cent of children 11-17 who have never smoked have ever vaped and 2.3% of never smokers currently vape.

ASH noted that the government strategy to deliver a smokefree 2030 by ‘cutting smoking and stopping kids vaping’ could be undermined by the growing misperception that vaping is more than or equally risky as smoking among children (up from 41% in 2022 to 54% in 2023) and adult smokers (up from 32% in 2022 to 39% in 2023).

“ASH surveys show that for the first time this year, the largest proportion of adults who smoke and the majority of all children, think that vaping is more than or equally harmful than smoking. These misperceptions are likely to encourage children to believe that they might as well smoke as vape, and discourage adults who smoke but have never vaped from taking up the government’s ‘swap to stop’ offer,” Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addictions, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, said.

“A well funded communications campaign is needed to address these growing misperceptions.”