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Smoking rate declines among young adults amid disposable vape popularity, study finds

May 25, 2024

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A new study conducted by researchers from University College London (UCL) has revealed a significant rise in overall nicotine use among adults in England, driven by a sharp increase in vaping among young adults since the advent of disposable vapes.

Published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe and funded by Cancer Research UK, the study, however, also revealed a complex interplay between declining smoking rates and escalating vaping habits, particularly among the youth.

According to the study, the prevalence of vaping among 18- to 24-year-olds tripled from 9 per cent in May 2021 to 29 per cent in May 2023, following the market introduction of disposable e-cigarettes in June 2021. During the same period, smoking rates in this age group fell from 25 per cent to 21 per cent. Consequently, overall nicotine use—encompassing both smoking and vaping—rose from 28 per cent to 35 per cent.

“The rapid rise in vaping would be less concerning if smoking rates had come down more rapidly,” lead author Dr. Harry Tattan-Birch from the UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care commented. “The overall increase in the use of nicotine shows this has not happened. Driven by the arrival of highly popular disposable e-cigarettes, vaping has become much more common among young people, some of whom would likely otherwise have avoided nicotine entirely.”

The study also observed trends in older demographics, where increases in vaping were minimal and smoking rates showed slight increases. For those over 45 years old, vaping prevalence nudged up from 5 per cent to 6 per cent, while smoking rates climbed from 12 per cent to 14 per cent.

A particularly notable finding was the surge in vaping among young adults who had never smoked, rising from 2 per cent to 9 per cent.

Senior author Dr. Sarah Jackson, also from UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, emphasised the need for balanced regulatory policies.

“While action is needed to counter the rise in vaping among young people who otherwise would not use nicotine, policies should avoid signalling that e-cigarettes are a worse alternative to smoking tobacco. Vaping may not be risk-free, but smoking is uniquely lethal,” she said.

“It is also critical that policies designed to make e-cigarettes less attractive to young people do not inadvertently make these products less effective for helping people to stop smoking. Measures that target vaping products’ appearance, packaging, and marketing rather than their flavours and nicotine content may be most effective in striking this balance.”