It has helped many to kick unhealthy smoking habits. But now vaping is sweeping our schools, with sweet-smelling e-cigarettes hooking in children as young as 10, and their teachers are worried about the consequences.
They have complained of vaping making pupils “antsy” in lessons as they wait for a fix, of making school toilets “frightening”, of increasing truancy, and of the risk that it will lead to the use of stronger substances such THC or Spice.
Headteacher Evelyn Forde, of Copthall School in Mill Hill, north London, is so concerned she wants to spend thousands of pounds installing a sensor in her school’s toilets to detect when her students use e-cigarettes.
She is worried about the growing number of pupils at the girls-only school who have been vaping over the past year, including some as young as 13.
Her teachers are already patrolling the toilets more frequently and police have been invited to educate the girls, aged 11 to 18, about the dangers of vaping.
“[A vape is] a banned item in our school, it’s banned like cigarettes or a knife,” she says. “We take it very seriously because we can see the danger it would have on their health.”
A “health crisis” driven by underage vaping, which is affecting schools up and down the country, could be on the horizon, i has been told. Some experts say the main priority is still stopping children from picking up a traditional tobacco cigarette, but others are clear that the rising number of school-age vapers is problem in itself.
This week, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, said the number of children vaping was “appalling”.
He namechecked the disposable Elfbar, which come in flavours such as “green gummy bear” and “watermelon bubble gum”, and, with colourful packaging, could easily be mistaken for a highlighter pen. They cost around five pounds, making them easily accessible for pupils on pocket money.
He told MPs that vaping was “an addictive product” with “unknown consequences for developing minds” so marketing it to children was “utterly unacceptable”.
“Yet it is happening,” Professor Whitty said. “The rates of vaping have doubled in the last couple of years among children. So that is an appalling situation.”
The proportion of 11 to 17-year-olds who admit to having tried vaping rose from 14 per cent in 2020 to 16 per cent in 2022, according to the annual YouGov Smokefree youth survey for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).
The percentage of children who regularly vape – more than once a week – has risen from 1.3 per cent to 3.1 per cent over the same time frame.
Alongside fears about what vaping could do to developing brains, there is concern it could be a gateway to other drugs.
“The stark rise in vaping in children and young adults will lead to a health crisis in this country,” said Nuno Albuquerque, head of treatment for the UK Addiction Treatment Group.
“Vaping is still so new and so clinicians are yet to fully understand the implications this addiction will have on people both physically and mentally. Our concern is that as more children vape, they develop addictive behavioural tendencies which can lead them to experimenting with other substances in the future.”
But vaping, which children are being exposed to on social media, can be frustratingly difficult to counter. The smell can be strong but it could be mistaken for perfume or food – and e-cigarettes can be quickly hidden from sight after a single puff.
i has learned that some schools have resorted to removing the main doors to their toilets – cubicle doors remain – to deter children from vaping during lunch. Others are using metal detector wands to confiscate vapes.
When teacher Tom Rogers asked his 60,000 Twitter followers this week how much of a problem vaping was in their school, tcolleagues presented a similar picture.
A drama teacher said e-cigarettes had made “the toilets a frightening place to go”, adding: “Pupils are late to lessons, truanting has become more of an issue. We don’t know what is in them.”
Louise McAllister, head of history at a secondary in County Durham, said: “I think it’s a problem. We have ks4 [Key Stage 4] kids who get antsy period 4 as they’re ready for a vape.”
And a deputy head from the West Midlands linked vaping to the risk of pupils using other stronger substances like “THC, Spice, Mamba”.
Part of the problem, say teachers, is that children can easily purchase vapes from corner shops or secure them via older siblings or even their parents. Ms Forde was shocked to discover vape hoodies online, where e-cigarettes can be attached to the item’s drawstrings.
Vaping is when people use an e-cigarette to inhale nicotine – as well as flavourings – in vapour rather than smoke.
They are less dangerous than traditional cigarettes because they do not produce the tar or carbon monoxide found in tobacco smoke. Vapes are successful in helping smokers to quit but are not recommended for people who do not smoke.
They cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18.
The NHS says the long-term health risks of vaping remain unclear. The main danger of vaping is that the vast majority of products contain nicotine, which is addictive and could harm children who are still developing.
Some of the dangers of vaping come from not always knowing what the device contains or where it came from.
In 2019, there was an outbreak of serious lung injuries among people who vape in the US which led to the deaths of 68 people.
It was later revealed the cause was vitamin E acetate which had been added to cannabis vaping products. The UK Health Security Agency said vitamin E acetate is banned from UK regulated nicotine-containing e-cigarettes.
Defective batteries in vapes could also be a source of harm after reports of fires and explosions.
Research from Johns Hopkins University in the US found vaping aerosols contain thousands of chemicals and substances, such as caffeine and industrial chemicals, which are not disclosed by their manufacturers.
There are concerns vaping could be harmful to the lungs.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of charity Action on Smoking and Health, said: “Smoking is much more harmful than vaping and stopping children starting to smoke must remain the priority.
“Cigarette smoke is highly addictive and contains 250 toxic chemicals – a third of which are cancer causing. By comparison e-cigarette vapour only contains a very small proportion of chemicals of concern.
“But while vaping can be very helpful for smokers trying to quit, it is not risk-free, and we don’t yet know what the long-term effects may be, so if you don’t smoke you shouldn’t vape.
“ASH has worked closely with Sheffield City Council to produce a range of resources for schools, teachers and parent to help them tackle youth vaping which we highly recommend for schools trying to crack down on vaping.”
“[My fear is] students not recognising the impact it can have on their health because there is nicotine in it,” she said. “They’re too young… It feels like it could be a stepping stone to something a little bit more damaging.”
Caitlin Notley, professor of addiction sciences at the University of East Anglia, told i there wasn’t a “clear rationale” that underage vaping would lead to smoking. “I wonder whether vaping might be a fashion fad, the kind of thing that takes off in popularity and then maybe will start to wane in popularity,” she said.
“You do see that happening with other substances, recreational drugs. We’ve seen it over the years, that there’s a big outcry about young people using a certain thing and they just seem to lose interest in it. I wonder if that will happen, but obviously can’t be sure.”
However, for Tom Bennett, the Department for Education’s school behaviour adviser, vaping has become the problem smoking once was.
“Students use vaping for the same reason they used smoking: to look cool, to indicate maturity and status, and strike a pose as individuals,” he said. “Sadly, there are still health risks.
“Any behaviour, particularly addictive behaviours, are exacerbated by easy availability and opportunity, and it’s always concerning when vaping equipment is available near schools.
“Responsible shopkeepers should be incredibly strict in who and when they sell products to. But schools can also play a part, by educating students about the dangers of vaping, by watching student behaviour in this area, confiscating when necessary, and by having a system of penalties for repeat offenders.
“They can also build relationships with local vendors, to encourage them to sell responsibly and report any attempts to buy products from students in uniform, or those who look underage.”
One way in which schools are cracking down on vaping is through workshops on the associated dangers. Glenda Oliver, who delivers the Catch Your Breath programme to primary schools across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, has heard of pupils vaping in years five and six.
Children are unaware of the impact of inhaling nicotine and have been enticed by the bright colours and flavours, she said: “I think they just look at them like they’re fruit-coloured, they’re fruit-flavoured, until we explain to them there’s zero fruit and there’s a lot more to it.
“It’s an addiction cycle they’re starting really young… It’s the colours that entice them. It’s social media, all these things that didn’t used to be there.”
Paige Furnell delivers Catch Your Breath education sessions to secondary schools in the same area, as well as “interventions” for specific children known to vape. Some are “completely shut off” to being educated while others are more receptive, she said.
“Teens have absolutely no interest in smoking. But that’s years of educating them and explaining that it is bad for you,” she added. “And there’s a never-ending list of things that can happen to your body. As far as we’re concerned the [vaping] project is ongoing.”
Elfbar said: “How to better protect younger and underage groups is a topic for the entire industry and is also a top priority for Elfbar. We have launched a series of programmes including the Lighthouse Guardian Program, to protect teenagers’ safety and prevent their usage of nicotine in any form.
“We actively engage industry associations, government and policy bodies, and other key stakeholders in this area.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have some of the strongest regulations in place to prevent children from vaping.
“The law protects children from e-cigarettes through restricting sales to over-18s only; limiting nicotine content, refill bottle and tank sizes; labelling requirements; and through advertising restrictions.
“Adverts for e-cigarettes and their components are prohibited from featuring anything likely to be of particular appeal to people under the age of 18, such as characters or celebrities [chidlren] would be familiar with.
“We are clear that vaping should only be used to help people quit smoking – vapes should not be used by people under 18 or non-smokers – and we are exploring measures to address the use of disposable vaping products, particularly amongst children.”
The Advertising Standards Agency said: “While we don’t regulate the sale or branding of vapes and e-cigarettes, the ASA does regulate the advertising of these products.
“We’re keenly aware that this is an area where people have a lot of concerns. We’re continuing to monitor the situation and review our policies, which includes discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care on the regulation of new products, to ensure that we’re protecting vulnerable audiences from any potential harms linked to e-cigarette advertising.
“We encourage anyone with concerns with ads we’ve seen to get in touch.”
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