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Vape use among teenagers grows, ASH survey finds

July 7, 2022

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Current vaping among children aged 11-17 has gone up from 4 per cent in 2020 to 7 per cent in 2022, a new survey by the charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has found.

ASH’s annual youth survey, carried out in March by YouGov and published on Thursday, has also shown the the proportion of children who admit ever having tried vaping has risen from 14 per cent in 2020 to 16 per cent in 2022.

Disposable e-cigarettes are now the most used product among current vapers, up more than seven-fold from 7 per cent in 2020 and 8 per cent in 2021, to 52 per cent in 2022. Elf Bar and Geek Bar are overwhelmingly the most popular, with only 30 per cent of current users having tried any other brands.

Commenting on the survey, Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addictions, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, and author of a forthcoming review of the evidence for the government, said: “The rise in vaping is concerning and we need to understand what lies behind this such as packaging, accessibility, taste or addictiveness. Our response must be proportionate given that smoking is a much bigger risk to the health of young people and the good evidence that e-cigarettes can be an effective stop smoking aid.”

“[The] government should ensure existing laws are enforced and identify where regulations could be extended. However, this must be done alongside securing a much quicker decline in young people taking up smoking and helping more smokers to stop.”

On a positive note, 92 per cent of under 18s who’ve never smoked, have also never vaped, and only 2 per cent have vaped more frequently than once or twice. And while underage vaping has risen, underage smoking is lower than it was in 2020 (14 per cent in 2022 compared to 16 per cent in 2020).

‘Just to give it a try’ is still the most common reason given by never smokers for using an e-cigarette (65%). For young smokers the most common reason for using an e-cigarette was ‘because I like the flavours’ (21%) followed by ‘I enjoy the experience’ (18%) then ‘just to give it a try’ (15%),  but they also said ‘because I’m trying to quit smoking’ (11%) or ‘I use them instead of smoking’ (9%). Fruit flavours remain the most popular (57%).

For the first time this year the survey asked about awareness of promotion of e-cigarettes. Over half (56%) of 11-17 year olds reported being aware of e-cigarette promotion, most frequently in shops, or online, with awareness highest amongst those who’d ever vaped (72%). Tik Tok was the most frequently cited source of online promotion (45%) followed by Instagram (31%).

“The disposable vapes that have surged in popularity over the last year are brightly coloured pocket-sized products with sweet flavours and sweet names, and are widely available for under a fiver, no wonder they’re attractive to children,” Deborah Arnott, ASH chief executive, said.

“As the Khan review recommended to government, an additional £15 million needs to be invested in enforcement, and this should include vaping as well as tobacco products. The laws also need strengthening to prohibit child-friendly packaging and labelling of vaping products and to prevent promotion on social media. But online platforms like Tik Tok don’t need to wait, they must act now. The flood of glamourous promotion of vaping on social media is completely inappropriate and social media platforms should take responsibility and turn off the tap.”

Gillian Golden, Chief Executive of the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA), concurred.

“Social media platforms supposedly have policies to prevent promotion of vapes to children, but they do little to enforce them. We monitor and report infringements to social media platforms, but they rarely take any action, with Tik Tok being the worst offender,” she said.

“Businesses that illegally sell products to under 18’s, are also more likely break the law by selling products that do not comply with UK regulations. Most retailers and importers don’t sell to children and want tougher enforcement to ensure that others don’t either.”

Tackling counterfeits

According to the survey, despite it being illegal to sell vapes to under 18s, the most common source of supply for underage vapers is shops (47%).

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the MHRA, which regulates e-cigarettes, and trading standards have been monitoring the situation and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) was commissioned to carry out a rapid review of compliance earlier this year.

A total of 442 test purchases using young people under the age of 18 years to attempt to purchase disposable vapes were conducted in shops during February and March 2022. Illegal sales were made on 145 occasions, a non-compliance rate of 33 per cent, with underage sales highest in mobile phone and discount shops at 50 per cent and 52 per cent respectively. A quarter of the products purchased were not up to UK standards and should not have been on sale in this country.

“Trading Standards teams are doing their best to protect young people from underage sales of both vapes and tobacco. However, this is an increasingly challenging situation as a result of continued government funding cuts for local authorities which has meant spending on trading standards has halved over the last decade or so,” John Herriman, chief executive, Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said.

“ Given the particularly prominence around age-restriction as a means of reducing smoking rates, in the recently published independent review of smoking by Javed Khan, additional funding is vital for trading standards, so that we can protect our communities and enforce the law.”

Trading standards were also commissioned by the DHSC and the MHRA to carry out targeted inspection of importers and/or distributors suspected of supplying black market vaping products to the retail sector and members of the public. Typically, these were disposable products produced for the American market that were either above 20mg, had a capacity exceeding 2ml, or the wrong health warning.

The majority of non-compliant businesses located were in the North West region, in particular in the Greater Manchester area. 19 visits were completed, and 44,000 products were found to be non-compliant, with action including seizure taken locally by trading standards. An additional 24 businesses were identified as noncompliant during the course of the visits, 10 of which were in the Greater Manchester area.