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Substance misuse

Vaping: why urgent Government action is needed to protect children and young people

A young woman sits at a cafe using a vape. She breathes out the vapour into the air.

As frontline staff from across Catch22’s range of services report an increase in the popularity of vaping amongst children and young people, Stella Tsantekidou, Catch22’s Head of Policy and Campaigns, considers the impact of this growing habit, and what we want to see from Government to stop this from becoming a national crisis.

The appeal of vaping for young people

“Stop smoking, start vaping” commands a sign outside a sparkling, refurbished vaping shop on the street near my local high school. In it, seemingly endless rows of colourful pen shaped disposable vapes are stacked like candy. The shop has the wonderfully welcoming and evocative smell of cotton candy – nothing like the stuffy stench of tobacco shops I was used to in my youth.

The NHS website reads:

“Nicotine vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking. It’s also one of the most effective tools for quitting smoking. […] Vaping is not recommended for non-smokers and young people because it is not completely harmless.”

What I would be hearing, were I a teenager, is that yes, vaping is not 100% harmless, but it is close! Maybe 99% harmless.

It is also very pleasant; it tastes fantastic; it looks cool; the smoke it releases is thick and foggy: highly aesthetic, like that of illicit roll ups but without the extra stress of illegality. Vaping is after all, legal (for adults anyway).

It looks like an accessory – it is something to do with one’s anxious, adolescent hands. It is cheap – cheaper than tobacco cigarettes. It is widely available. It looks great on TikTok and Snapchat clips, and the smoke photographs well for Instagram posts. It is easy to sneak in a few puffs in the school restrooms: the smoke does not linger, and the fire alarm does not go off.

Political approval

It is no wonder staff members across our services and schools are reporting that vaping’s popularity is reaching alarming levels amongst children and young people. Parents are also telling us they would rather their kid told them they vape than smoke: a false choice for the better of two evils.

Years of the vaping lobby hosting glitzy receptions at party conferences, offering goody bags with free vape pens to wandering politicians and other politicos. Usually, the speeches at these receptions would be short and subtle. Most of the value of the events came in the hushed tone chats among the attendees and in the opportunity of whatever political consultancy was running the events to hand out the very desirable, complementary vaping pens.

‘The product speaks for itself,’ was the underlying marketing strategy because, as one young person told us, “You need to understand… They are delicious!”

A “healing” habit

It is hard to imagine the tobacco industry being welcomed to throw such events at the party conferences of the major parties hoping to form the next government, but vaping has not been culturally stigmatised yet, as a result of it being promoted as a healing habit by the Government.

However, vaping is just as habit-forming as smoking. Vape pens have nicotine, a highly-addictive substance. They cause lung inflammation, damage lung cells, and contribute to respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma.

According to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health:

“E-cigarettes are not a risk-free product and can be just as addictive, if not more so, than traditional cigarettes.”

Vaping can also lead to the development of a serious lung condition called EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury). Its aerosolized substances contain harmful chemicals, including heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and cancer-causing agents.

We know that the adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of nicotine. Vaping among young people can hinder brain development, impacting cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and learning.

A gateway to riskier behaviours

Our frontline staff working with children and young people are also concerned that vaping is a habit that is used to cope with negative feelings. Running away from negative feelings and problems by using substances is a dangerous path that has led many adults to addiction and mental health issues later in life. We hear from young people that sometimes they cannot go through a whole lesson without a loo break to inhale their vape. This is a habit that will seriously jeopardise their learning now and career prospects and ability to fulfil adult expectations later in their life.

More alarmingly, we have heard of vapes being given to children for free by gangs attempting to groom them and of course of vaping being a gateway drug for many to riskier behaviours, not just smoking tobacco but also using illegal substances. As the public health campaigns have promoted vaping as a healthy alternative to smoking, parents and teachers are slower to react, seeing it as more socially acceptable.

Government responsibility

The Government has two important duties in tackling vaping among children and young people:

  • Firstly, a clear public health message: vaping is not a healthful habit or a sustainable coping mechanism.
  • Secondly, provide alternatives to the gap that is currently filled by vaping in the lives of young people.

Young people need to feel connected and supported to deal with difficult feelings and situations normal to their age by adults in their environment who have the skills and resources to help them. This means more investment in youth workers and youth centres. In our services we have seen that fostering genuine, transparent connections among young people and adults they trust is the best way to prevent issues from spiralling into crisis.

Until we fill that gap, we are only exchanging one vice for another. In the 90s, it was alcopops; now, it is vaping. The markets will throw something new once vaping is restricted but being vigilant against one harmful habit is not enough.

– Stella Tsantekidou, Head of Policy and Campaigns