The vaping conflict

When we are booked to deliver a drugs education workshop to students aged 15 years or older, we try and survey them beforehand. This is a vital piece of our planning process, because it means we can get a handle on what information students want, but also what they need as we ask questions about which substances they perceive to be around for their peers and also which ones seem more problematic.


Ove the last five years, one substance has risen through the rankings: vaping. At an individual school level and when we collate the data – and we’ve had nearly 6,000 responses to our school survey so far this academic year – vaping now pretty much always comes out joint top with alcohol.


It’s little wonder that vaping seems to be everywhere because it is heavily pushed as a stop smoking method. This is in line with the English government’s aim for the country to be smoke-free by 2030 Smoking rates are currently at their lowest ever, but that still means they hover above the 13 per cent mark, which is quite far adrift of where they need to be – defined as 5 per cent or less, as this is regarded as the tipping point at which smoking is no longer viewed as a societal norm – in order for the 2030 ambition to be realized.


Vaping certainly has a huge part to play in helping smokers quit, but the way it is promoted almost makes it seem healthy. Which it most definitely isn’t. Yes, it is a better alternative to smoking, but that’s because smoking is known to be so incredibly harmful: it is the single biggest cause of preventable illness and death in England, killing over 74,000 people, increasing the risk of hospital admission by more than a third, and costing the NHS some £2.4billion… and those are annual figures.


But public health organisations don’t want to say that vapes are knives compared to cigarettes being (smoking) guns. That would muddle the message. So instead it largely goes unsaid, and this legitimizes vaping across the board, even for people who don’t smoke. And our data – and comments made in our sessions – shows that there is a huge lack of understanding of the fact that vaping can be harmful (our video on the topic is a good starting point if you want to find out more). Nor do young people realise they are being manipulated into thinking vaping is a valid lifestyle choice, by videos they see on social media, whether they are viewing overt “vaping tricks” reels or an influencer they admire and follow talking about it or even simply having it in shot… having been sent the product free of charge.


An added problem is that vapes are very easy to get hold of. Yes, there is an age restriction of 18 years, but many retailers put barriers in place that are easy to overcome (such as a tick box declaration online) or seem prepared to disregard the controls altogether. And yes, retailers can get into trouble for such practices, but they are aware that public services are stretched, so there aren’t as many enforcement officers as there used to be.


There is also a considerable quantity of unregulated vapes out there. This means all bets are off in terms of the content of nicotine and other chemicals plus other safety measures, as unregulated products won’t have been through the same level of testing as legal vapes. A lot to worry about there, particularly for young people who are more vulnerable to the harms – including an increased risk of dependence because their adolescent brains can learn such behaviours if exposed to substances such as nicotine – and it isn’t much of a leap to imagine that places ignoring the law by selling to under 18s may be more likely to stock unlawful vapes.


So what would help? There are calls to bring in packaging restrictions, much as are in place for cigarettes, and curbs on flavourings, as many seem designed to appeal to young people. There are also calls for the vaping age to be increased to 21 years and a pressing need to emphasize the message that someone who smokes should switch to vaping, but someone who doesn’t smoke shouldn’t vape at all.


But these moves take years to come into effect, and how many more young people will decide in the meantime that vaping is a cool thing to do? How much harm will be caused? So ultimately, education matters, and that’s where we come in. Vaping is now high on the agenda of any workshop we do, for parents and school staff just as much for teenagers, because the topic isn’t well understood by adults either. And we will keep following the news as well as research, so we can provide information that is up to date as well as evidence-based.