Ten years ago, vaping was unheard of in the UK. Now, e-cigarettes are easily accessible through bricks-and-mortar vaping shops, online stores, and even gas stations. To see someone vaping isn’t unusual anymore, and communities are sprouting up both locally and online.
More than 3 million people in the UK are vapers, which chalks up to nearly 20% of the population. Vapers also tend to be regular or former smokers, and 35- to 45-year-olds are the most common age group. The same study by NHS Digital shows that adults 60 years older and above are the least likely to vape. Even though vaping is banned for those 18 years old and below, there are still a lot of young people who vape.
Vaping may be a constant subject of debate and research, but the general focus has been on adult vapers. As our understanding of vaping becomes more refined, studies are taking on segmentation, examining the different groups of vapers rather than lumping them all into one generic group.
Young vapers have been garnering more attention recently, and a common question is: are more children and teenagers vaping in the UK than ever, despite strict restrictions? To figure this out, let’s look at the reports and statistics.
Vaping Among Young People
This 2019, Public Health England (PHE) released an independent report called “Regular e-cigarette use remains low among young people in Britain.” The study was conducted by researchers from King’s College London, who wanted to examine the vaping behaviour of 11- to 18-year-olds. In a nutshell, 15.9% of young people have tried vaping at least once, but only 1.7% make it a habit, vaping every week or more. Young people who have never smoked are underrepresented, with a mere 0.2% becoming regular vapers.
Another report done by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) had similar results. ASH conducts surveys every year, and its most recent one says that 15.4% of young people have used e-cigs. Only 1.6% consider themselves as current vapers, meaning that they vape more than once a week, but nobody vaped daily. Most young people who have tried vaping also have experience with smoking
These two recent reports arrive at the same conclusion. Experimenting with vaping has increased among young people, in the sense that they want to experience it once, but overall, few of them become regular vapers. For both young people and adults, vaping primarily attracts smokers, and non-smokers don’t show as much interest.
What Makes the UK Different
Contrary to what many expect, the main reason why young people try vaping is curiosity—and once that curiosity is satisfied, they tend to turn away. The flavour in e-liquids and nic salts is also undoubtedly a factor. This is in stark contrast to the US, where the evidence suggests young people are drawn to vaping because it seems cool. Peer pressure and wanting to fit in or appear edgy aren’t the dominant motivation for UK youth, and as Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, points out, “there’s little evidence that vaping is seen as a super cool phenomenon” in the UK.
Studies on vaping are also conducted differently in the US and the UK. Surveys in the US focus more on whether young people have tried vaping or done it recently. On the other hand, those in the UK put more emphasis on regular use and examining current or former smokers separately from non-smokers.
Regular use does have different implications from one-time attempts. Once we consider that vaping might be replacing smoking, the positive effect on public health becomes apparent.
Young People are Smoking Less
As vaping becomes popular, there are less smokers than ever among youth and adults, and that’s hardly a coincidence.
A study by Cardiff University this year researchers found that smoking decreased from 1998 to 2015 among 13- to 15-year-olds. Young people who had tried smoking went from 60% to 19%, while for regular smokers, it was 19% to 5%. That’s a sharp downturn! Just as young people are smoking less, they’re also seeing smoking more negatively, with only 27% saying that smoking is okay in contrast to 70% in 1999.
This is consistent with a later analysis by NHS Digital. According to its newest survey, which assessed 250,000 young people, regular smokers among young people went from 5% in 2011 to 3% in 2016.
Vaping was already making waves throughout the UK as early as 2010. Although some are concerned that vaping might lead kids and teenagers into smoking, that doesn’t hold up at all when we look at the statistics. In fact, the opposite is happening. Young people are smoking less and less. Vaping isn’t aggravating the public health issue of smoking, and optimistically, it might even be helping young people transition away from smoking.
Vaping Helps Smokers Quit
The PHE, Royal College of Physicians, and Cancer Research UK, among other public health authorities, have all championed vaping as much healthier alternative to smoking. The landmark 2015 report from Public Health England concluded that vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking, and many smokers turn to vaping in order to quit; a fact the was further confirmed in 2018 by PHE.
Smoking may be at an all-time low in the UK, but that doesn’t change the fact that millions of people still do smoke, children and teenagers included. Vaping works so well as a substitute because it’s similar to the ritual of smoking, and it provides the same amount of nicotine, which isn’t the unhealthy component in cigarette smoke.
Vaping is one of the best solutions that we have today for smoking. A clinical trial even found that e-cigarettes combined face-to-face support are twice as good at helping smokers quit as compared to standard nicotine replacement therapies.
Thanks to stronger public awareness, educational campaigns, and regulatory changes, vaping is much more accepted today as an anti-smoking tool, and it’s being gradually integrated into the public health system.
Still, it’s a nuanced situation. From one perspective, young people shouldn’t be smoking in the first place, and vaping is doing them a lot of good if it steers them away from a lifetime of smoking. On the other hand, regulations are correct to approve of vaping only for those older than 18 years old.
What makes it more complicated is that there’s also a lot of misunderstanding about vaping and young people. This is mainly driven by hype, hearsay, and media buzz that aren’t supported by data, so research should be made more widely available to the public.
Ultimately, although those who are 18 years old and below are considered young, they can already make their own decisions, and adults should give support by providing more information and helping them reflect on what would be best for them.
To sum it up vaping remains uncommon among young people. While more of them are experimenting with vaping, most of those who try it don’t become regular vapers. Crucially, an overwhelming number of them are current or ex-smokers. Instead of vaping encouraging young people to be smokers, it helps shift them away from it, and at a time when vaping is at its most popular, young people are smoking less than ever.
This decrease in smoking is a win for public health. Smoking is addicting and even deadly, causing numerous health problems, and starting when you’re young will only make it harder to break away and make the consequences more serious. A smoke-free generation may seem ambitious, but with smoking rates plunging year after year across all age groups, we’re getting closer to it than ever.