Are our children vaping?

Are our children vaping?

As the news today informs us that the number of teenagers smoking cigarettes has fallen to the lowest rate on record, alternative headlines inform us that vaping amongst young people is an ‘epidemic’ that needs to be stopped. What’s the truth behind the headlines?

Back when I was a teenager, you’d be hard pressed to find a space in the school toilets at break time between all the kids having a surreptitious smoke. I was one of them! In fact, out of my peer group, I could count on one hand the number who’d never tried a cigarette; most of us were regular smokers by the age of 16.

My experience is borne out by the results of a study by NHS Digital. According to their figures, in 1996 (around the time I finished school) 49% of children between 11 and 15 had tried smoking. In 2018, following an ongoing sharp decline, that figure had dropped to 16%.

In other words, 84% of young people have never taken so much as a puff on a cigarette!

Have kids switched smoking for vaping?

Contrast this positive news with other headlines dominating the media this week.

Can we stop America's teen vaping epidemic arriving in Britain?

Number of children vaping doubles in just four years

25 percent of UK high school kids have used e-cigarettes, survey says”

If this news is accurate, our children have simply switched smoking traditional cigarettes for vaping e-cigarettes. Is it accurate though? Or is the use of sensationalist words like ‘epidemic’ designed to play on our fears and demonise vaping? We turned to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) to unpick the data from the hyperbole.

Vaping remains uncommon among young people

Well, that’s a relief!

The latest update to the annual YouGov survey, commissioned by ASH, was released in June. It revealed that there was actually a slight drop in the number of 11-18 year olds that had tried vaping compared to 2018 - from 16% to 15.4%.

There was also a (tiny) drop in regular usage of e-cigarettes. In 2019, 1.6% of 11-18 year olds vaped more than once a week; the figure was 1.7% in 2018. However, in 2015 it was 0.5% - so there has been a slight increase in line with the rise in popularity of vaping among adults.

Are children who have never smoked now vaping?

According to the figures, the answer is ‘rarely’. In fact, the survey noted that not one single child that had never smoked reported vaping on a daily basis.

The truth is, vaping is far less common among young people who have never smoked. 93.8% of 11-18 year olds who have never tried smoking have also never tried vaping.

Are older children vaping in the UK?

The NHS Digital figures that I mentioned at the start of the article focused on the smoking habits of children between 11 and 15. The ASH survey covers vaping statistics for young people from 11-18. In order to compare apples with apples, it’s only fair that we split the numbers out.

The study reports that children under 16 are far less likely to have tried vaping than 16 to 18 year olds. 90.4% of 11-15 year olds have never tried vaping; some of them have never heard of e-cigarettes.

The prevalence of experimenting with vaping does get higher with age. In 2019, 26.7% of 16-18 year olds have tried vaping; so, in this respect, the headlines are factual. However, out of that 26.7%, only 2.5% of kids in this age bracket are using e-cigarettes more than once a week. 2% have vaped in the past and now stopped, and 6.5% use e-cigarettes very infrequently. The remaining 15.8% have only tried vaping once or twice.

Is the launch of Juul in the UK a cause for concern?

The UK press recently reported that vaping amongst teens in America has reached ‘epidemic’ proportions. The 2018 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA estimate that 1 in 5 (20.8%) high schoolers (ages 14-18) and 1 in 20 (4.9%) middle schoolers (ages 11-13) had used an e-cigarette within the last year. Unlike the more thorough ASH report, there is no data to show whether the 20.8% of 14-18 year olds had tried vaping once within the last year, or were daily vapers. For this reason, it’s difficult to conclude if there is actually a vaping epidemic in US schools, or if (like in the UK), most teens are simply giving it a try - as teenagers are wont to do with stuff they shouldn’t be trying.

The vast majority of young people in America who vape use the Juul device. So much so, in fact, that US teens call it ‘Juuling’ rather than vaping.

Since Juul launched their product to the UK market in summer 2018, the media’s been full of scaremongering headlines like the ones at the start of this article. US anti-tobacco campaigners warned the British Government to take action to prevent the ‘epidemic’ spreading to the UK.

So, how has a year of Juul sales impacted the UK teen vaping statistics? Well, unsurprisingly Juul has high brand awareness across the UK; however, only 7% of surveyed 11-18 year olds in the UK were able to name it unprompted. In fact, 55% of young people who had ever tried an e-cigarette didn’t even know which brand they’d vaped.

The warnings from across the pond that ‘teens are Juuling because they think it looks cool’ also don’t bear out in the UK. Only 1% of those surveyed gave ‘looking cool’ as a reason for trying e-cigarettes. The overwhelming majority (52.4%) just wanted to ‘give it a try’.

How are young people getting hold of e-cigarettes?

The answer to this question is split between being given them (35.2%) and buying them (61.9%) - FYI, the numbers don’t add up to 100% because respondents were allowed to tick more than one option.

The most common means of purchase is obviously the internet. As responsible vaping advocates, we will not knowingly sell vaping products online to anyone under the age of 18. We have age verification on entry to the site which often leads to enquiries to our team from customers about whether they will be asked to show ID on delivery. When we receive these questions, we don’t sell to that customer. Also, we encourage customers to use PayPal and, according to their rules, you have to be at least 18 to hold a PayPal account.

However, we are well aware that some under 18s will slip through the age verification methods we employ. For this reason, the Juul product can only be purchased from us in store so that we can be sure of a person’s age before selling to them. We are also looking to online security providers to implement more robust age verification processes.

Vaping and young people takeaways

The data from the 2019 ASH YouGov UK youth survey tells us that regular e-cigarette use among young people remains low. However, we mustn’t become complacent and assume that there will never be a problem with our children vaping in the UK.

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of ASH, made the following statement about the results,

“We need to be vigilant and continue to monitor e-cigarette use among young people. However, smoking prevalence among children and young adults in Britain has fallen substantially since 2010, which doesn’t indicate that vaping has been a gateway into smoking. And to date there is little sign that vaping is the “super-cool” phenomenon among young people here that it is said to be in the USA.”

We also know that regular vaping amongst teens who’ve never smoked is very rare. For those young smokers that turn to vaping, it’s obviously not ideal (we’d prefer them to do neither); however, as vaping is proven to be at least 95% safer than smoking, it’s certainly the less harmful option.

We’ll keep an eye on the figures and update this article when the new survey is released for 2020.

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  • Nicola Webster

About the author - Nicola Webster

Nicola Webster works as a researcher, consultant, and content creator for Vape UK and Vape UK CBD. She holds a CIM Level 6 Diploma in Professional Marketing and has developed her skills and knowledge of analytics and research over a 12 year career in product marketing. Her research led approach to campaigns and content writing ensures the articles she writes for Vape UK always have a basis in fact and cut through the noise. A strong advocate for tobacco harm reduction, Nicola is an ex-smoker thanks to vaping and wants others to understand the benefits of vaping compared to smoking. Outside of content creation and vaping advocacy, Nicola enjoys watching live music, travelling in Southeast Asia, and exploring the beautiful countryside of the South Downs.