Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a public health charity that campaigns to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco, has now set its sights on e-cigarettes – more commonly referred to as vapes. Vapes heat flavoured liquid – usually containing nicotine – to produce a vapour that can be inhaled to replicate the feeling of smoking a cigarette.
Vapes were originally intended to be a helpful way to progressively cut down on nicotine, but vaping has now blossomed into a problem of its own.
While vapes were designed as a replacement for traditional cigarettes, their appealing flavours, bright colours, and sweet smells have tempted many people who had never smoked before to pick up the habit.
Simple, brightly coloured disposable vapes are everywhere now. You’ve likely seen them in corner shops around town or even available behind the bar on nights out. Unfortunately, you may also be familiar with seeing them in the hands of children.
ASH’s latest study into the use of vapes among young people in Great Britain found that, in 2022, 15.8% of 11-17 year olds had tried vaping – up from 11.2% in 2021. Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said:
‘The disposable vapes that have surged in popularity over the last year are brightly coloured, pocket-size products with sweet flavours and sweet names. They are widely available for under a fiver – no wonder they are attractive to children.’
The EU has recently proposed a total ban on flavoured heated tobacco products. While this is only a proposal at this stage, it is unlikely to face much opposition and could be in place as early as mid-2023. This would spell the end of the appealing candy shop flavours that draw so many young people to vapes in the first place.
Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, commented:
‘With nine out of ten lung cancers caused by tobacco, we want to make smoking as unattractive as possible to protect the health of our citizens and save lives. Stronger actions to reduce tobacco consumption, stricter enforcement and keeping pace with new developments to address the endless flow of new products entering the market — particularly important to protect younger people — is key for this. Prevention will always be better than cure.
It has been suggested that adverts on TikTok and Instagram could be behind the rise in children vaping. ASH’s survey found that over half (55.8%) of all 11-17 year olds were aware of having seen some form of e-cigarette promotion either online or in shops. Of those who reported seeing e-cigarettes promoted online, the most common place was on TikTok (45.4%).
The platforms themselves cannot be solely blamed for this phenomenon. Many of us thought smoking looked cool when we were younger, especially when we regularly saw our favourite actors smoking in films and on television or saw cigarettes in the hands of the adults around us. Seeing TikTokers and Instagrammers vaping is no different for the current generation of children. While the smell and taste of traditional cigarettes may have put many of us off picking up the habit in reality, there is currently no such deterrent when it comes to vapes.
The ASH survey also found a statistically significant difference in how likely people were to pick up vapes based on the branding of their packaging. Perhaps a move to bring vape packaging in line with cigarette and tobacco packets could help reduce their visual appeal.
A path to quitting or just a new habit?
Research suggests that vaping is better than nicotine replacement therapy for stopping smoking as it is a way to retain the physical habit while slowly decreasing nicotine content over time. However, ‘incorrect perceptions of its relative risks compared to smoking may be discouraging smokers from using vaping to quit.’ Many smokers don’t realise it, but an expert review for the Government by Public Health England concluded in 2015 that e-cigarettes present a fraction of the risk of smoking. Cigarettes are perhaps still favoured by some because they carry a familiar level of risk, whereas the long-term effects of vapes are comparatively uncertain.
In many ways, vapes are working: approximately 1.5 million adults in the UK have switched to e-cigarettes and given up cigarette smoking. However, change is slow and current trends suggest it will take until 2050 for Great Britain to be entirely smoke-free. To speed up the transition to a smoke-free GB, it has been suggested that we could follow New Zealand’s lead and increase the smoking age yearly so that today’s children will never be old enough to purchase cigarettes.
Smoking costs the NHS £2.4 billion each year, so eradicating smoking is high on the UK government’s agenda. Promoting vaping is a core part of the plan to achieve this, but making vaping too appealing risks attracting non-smokers. There is a balance to be struck between pitching vapes as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes and remaining clear on the risks of picking up the habit to begin with.
Recommended for you
Carers of disabled young people are increasingly having to choose between heating and eating as rising energy costs hit poorer UK households.
More people are taking antidepressants than ever. Is this a dark sign of the times or an indication that mental health stigma is changing?
An 8-year study found school mindfulness classes are less effective than hoped. However, there have been some positive side effects.
When cancer patients go into remission, they often worry about it coming back. AI can now help identify those at risk of cancer recurrence.