Has the UK reached ‘epidemic’ levels with teen vaping rates?

Holding a Disposable Vape

E-Cigarette use amongst teens in the UK has seen a drastic increase over the last year or so, with the rates sitting at the highest it’s ever been, with the probability of young people getting hooked on Nicotine unnecessarily being a huge cause for concern.

Last year, I wrote an article covering the subject of whether or not the UK was on course to be facing a “teen vaping epidemic” like what the USA went through, with youths of America using disposable vaping devices totalling in the hundreds and thousands. And I want to revisit this topic at hand, as a top health expert in the UK deemed that a teen vaping epidemic is happening right now in the UK.

I’m going to take a look at the statements given by this health expert, as well as looking at the current state of affairs with youth vaping rates in the UK and see if we really are in a current youth vaping epidemic like what it’s believed

Raising the alarm on Youth Vaping

Dr Mike McKean, the Vice-President of policy for the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health recently spoke to The Guardian about the current state of affairs of youth vaping in the UK. Dr McKean made the statement that “vaping amongst underage users is reaching epidemic levels and if the current rates continue to grow with the current trajectory almost all children will be vaping within the next five years.”

He referenced back to NHS statistics which showed 9% of 11-15 year olds admitted they used E-Cigarettes in 2021, which was an increase from the 6% reported back in 2018. And this figure rises right up to 15% for children aged 15 years.

“This is a problem the UK should take seriously. Walk past a school at closing time and you’ll see what happens – large numbers of children vaping,” he said.

“That’s huge amounts of children spending money on products that are not cheap, and they’re inhaling chemicals we don’t know the long-term effects of. There can be large amounts of nicotine, especially in vapes from overseas, and children are becoming addicted to a drug.”

The last part of that quote is what we’re going to focus on for this next part of the article. Dr McKean makes the point of youths “spending money on products that are not cheap” but this is counteractive to one of the primary arguments being made for the banning of Disposable Vapes which is the fact that they are so cheap to buy. The average cost of a Disposable Vape is £5 which is hardly bank breaking, and is quite an easily obtainable amount of money by an 11-15 year olds via pocket money for example.

The “vapes from overseas” that Dr McKean is referencing is certainly causing trouble here in the UK, mainly for local Trading Standards agencies who are working tirelessly to get these illegitimate devices off of the shelves in shops, and punishing those who freely choose to flout the rules of what can and cannot be sold in the UK.

Shops that sell these devices without care of TPD regulations as well as Challenge 25 policies are normally mobile phone repair shops, corner shops, or discount stores and this has been proven by Trading Standards Agencies who used underage volunteers to carry out a “test purchase” where they entered the shop and attempted to buy an E-Cigarette, and worryingly over 50% of them were successful in doing so. This is not helping the case of keeping the youth vaping numbers down, and Trading Standards really do have their work cut out for them keeping on top of this problem.

Man Vaping

Dr McKean speaks on the health concerns of Vaping

As mentioned, Dr McKean is from the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health and he is one of the leading Respiratory Doctor’s in the UK. And moving on from the concerns of children using Disposable Vapes, he then moves on to discuss the potential “health effects” that could happen with continued use of an E-Cigarette.

Whilst we all know that there is currently no evidence on any long term health effects that can be caused by Vaping, and it does carry a certain level of uncertainty on whether there will or won’t be anything uncovered, but still the speculation is made that there will be some sort of long term health effects caused by Vaping.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a sudden thing, but it will grow over time. I’ve no doubt – because it’s happening already in small numbers – that people’s lungs will get damaged. For those who do get lung damage it could be devastating to their lives,” 

What is interesting here is the quote of “it’s happening already in small numbers – that people’s lungs will get damaged.” Whilst there may be a certain level of truth behind this, and if there is I am unaware of it as I’m yet to see any proven evidence that vaping can damage the lungs. The only thing I know for sure that has seen any form of “publicity” was the EVALI outbreak back in 2021 but this wasn’t caused by vaping conventional E-Liquid, and instead was caused by users using THC containing cartridges which had chemicals in not suitable for inhalation, chemicals which are strictly prohibited from being included in E-Liquid here in the UK.

Lack of regulations is fuelling the fire

disposable vaping products

The interview then moves on to discuss the current regulations of Disposables, or apparent lack of, that is not helping the situation of youth vaping seeing such a stark rise.

There’s been calls from various different campaigners for tighter rules and regulations on the packaging and advertising of vaping products, notably Disposable Vapes. The biggest call to action from these groups is for plain packaging to be introduced, like what happened to Cigarette and Tobacco packets back in 2016, to dull it down and make it less appealing to children.

A lot of people have been giving their views on it, with Chris Witty, England’s chief medical officer, describing the marketing of vaping products as “utterly unacceptable”

Dr McKean said it is “staggering” that the regulation of E-Cigarettes has not been bought in line with the regulations of tobacco and cigarettes, and insisted that something along these lines needs to come sooner rather than later as the long-term impact of vaping needed to be “watched and studied in a careful way”, learning lessons from mistakes made with tobacco control in which governments were “slow to bring in rules” and “many people died as a result”.

Of course, using an E-Cigarette carries significantly less risk than what smoking cigarettes and tobacco does, and there hasn’t (and in my opinion, hopefully never will be) any reported deaths due to vaping, so it’s a bit unfair to compare the tobacco control issues from the past.

Dr McKean says that E-Cigarettes are designed to be a smoking cessation tool for adults, yet is marketed as a consumer product. McKean says that manufacturers are taking an “insidious and quite disturbing approach” to their marketing by “lacing vapes with sweet flavours and targeting children with colourful packaging”

Packaging really does play a part in the appeal of E-Cigarettes

The article goes on to discuss something I was actually going to bring up myself, so this ties in nicely! Action on Smoking and Health teamed up with King’s College London to carry out a survey looking at how different packaging could potentially affect people on whether or not they would want to buy the product.

Their study of 2,469 11- to 18-year-olds and 12,026 adults found that teenagers were more likely to say their peers would have no interest in vapes when marketed in standardised white or green packaging, whereas adults said their interest was not reduced.

I find this really interesting that adults weren’t really affected or fussed by the packaging, but the group of 11-18 year olds would likely have less interest in plain packaged vaping products. The packaging options that they suggested were colourful with no changes, all white, or all green which is the same shade that is used for cigarettes and tobacco packets, but there was somewhat of a cause for concern of this colour being used as it could associate vaping with smoking and all of the risks that come with smoking.

Dr McKean’s suggestions for the future

Dr McKean concludes his interview with some suggestions for what should happen to counteract this apparent “epidemic” that the UK is in.

As expected, Dr McKean is fully onside with a ban on Disposable Vapes, not only to counteract the high usage of them by youths but also to bring down the damage they are causing to the environment. But he does not agree with a “universal ban” on vaping products, like what some other countries have introduced and not exactly seen positive results from it.

He concludes with

“If this was a medicine or a drug put in a tablet it would be incredibly regulated but it’s not – vaping should be regulated as a medicine. It’s a tool for adults who are addicted to cigarette smoking to quit; that’s where it should be, anything else should be stamped out ruthlessly.”

My Thoughts

I’m now going to conclude this article with my own thoughts on the current state of affairs with youth vaping in the UK and whether or not we have reached epidemic levels like what Dr McKean believes it is.

And in my personal opinion, we certainly are NOT in a “youth vaping epidemic” I base my opinion on the youth vaping epidemic that the USA went through which I referenced earlier. The sheer volume of youths that were vaping in the USA was so much more than what the UK statistics show. So to call what’s happening in the UK an epidemic does seem a little overboard.

I’ve said in my previous articles that regulations on E-Cigarettes really would not be a bad thing, and something happening regarding this sooner rather than later is absolutely imperative in my opinion. A ban on Disposable Vapes also wouldn’t be a bad thing in my opinion, and I hope that it would just end there at banning Disposables, and not flavoured E-Liquid like what has been suggested and thrown around by some, as this would punish those who are of legal age to vape and rely on flavoured e-liquid to stop them from relapsing and smoking cigarettes.

I’ll continue to keep a watch on this subject and be sure to write more articles with any further developments that happen regarding youth vaping, and the regulations that may be introduced here in the UK.

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