Does Britain have a youth vaping problem?
This sounds like a simple question, and if you read the recent studies by ASH and the NHS, then the answer appears to be a resounding no.
I won't go into too much detail in the reports here as I could fill this whole blog with nothing but statistical analysis that confirms the answer is 'no' which, let's be honest, isn't going to be very interesting or fun to read. I'll leave links at the bottom of this blog to those reports for you to read at your own leisure. Statistics are one thing, but perception is another and so are people's ideas on what exactly constitutes a 'problem', and that's a far more interesting topic to me.
Most of the chatter seems to have started around products being 'targeted at youth'. I don't believe that is the case with the vast majority of vaping products, but if it is true then they aren't doing a very good job. There is no evidence that our youth are taking up vaping in any significant numbers. As e-cigarettes become more popular in general, then some experimentation can be expected by young people, it's what young people do. They have always experimented with alcohol and in some cases illegal drugs in exactly the same way. Regular use of e-cigarettes by young people remains very low in the UK, it's something they may try once or twice or something they do occasionally. In the ASH report over half the young people in the study said they have vaped before 'just to give it a try' and only 1% said “because they think it looks cool” To most young people vaping looks like smoking and smoking hasn't been seen as 'cool' thing to do for a long time. Vaping has not been glamorised the way cigarettes were while I was growing up. Trying a vapour product once or twice is not what I would consider a problem. What is very clear is that smoking among young people is at an all time low, there is also a significant reduction in cannabis and alcohol use too. So for those with concerns in these areas I think we can remain positive.
Regular vapers that have never smoked are still extremely rare in the UK and almost every vaping advocate agrees that if you don't smoke you shouldn't start vaping. However there is also a danger that if you take vaping products away from people, then they might turn to smoking cigarettes or illegal products instead. It's not a question most people like to ask themselves, but would we rather people were trying vaping or trying smoking? It's easy to say that they shouldn't be doing either but that isn't always a realistic position. Some anti-smoking groups have suggested on numerous occasions that vaping could normalise smoking for young people, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. The evidence in the ASH report shows a decrease in the uptake of youth vaping from last year, to suggest that there is anything like a 'youth vaping problem' would be totally false.
The USA has a lot of issues around vaping at the moment and I think it's fair to say that while reports of a 'Youth Vaping Epidemic' are exaggerated and hyperbolic, they do have issues that we don't have here in the UK. The word 'Epidemic' is used for a reason, it's emotive language and it's used to justify restrictions on vaping like flavour bans. In the UK more than three quarters of 11-18 year olds have never tried an e-cigarette at all. I think the perception of vaping among America's youth is very different to how it is in the UK. We are far more focused on it being a tool to help smokers, our medical bodies support it as one and that view helps with public perception. The idea of vaping for 'fun' or for a 'nicotine buzz' is not a common one. A couple of year ago I felt we were dangerously close to heading in the wrong direction with vaping, but I think in the last year the UK industry has been changing largely in a positive way. While the TPD was financially damaging to companies and caused some of the smaller liquid manufacturers to close, I think most people now see that some regulation was necessary for the safe future of UK vaping and the public perception of vaping. It has helped us avoid a lot of what America is going through now.
The UK doesn't have a youth vaping problem and I don't believe it ever will if we stick to our sensible use and promotion of the products and a factual based education for our young people. We have regulations and we have a very good foundation to move forward and make Britain the world leader in tobacco harm reduction and the use of vapour products. As cigarette users decline, vapour product users will increase, that's to be expected. Even if a percentage of those people are youths that is not something we need to panic about. We have restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes, we have a good regulated industry and we can educate and advise our young people to make good decisions. Personally speaking, if they aren't taking up smoking cigarettes, then I think they are making a good decision already.
For further reading: