Underage vaping in the UK

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Since 2016, Vaping in the UK has seen a constant growth year on year of how many people are now vaping after opting to quit smoking cigarettes. Statistics show that roughly 3.7 million adults in the UK use e cigarettes, which is the highest the number has ever been.

However, with this statistic also comes the alarming number of children, who are under the legal age to buy e cigarettes, using them every day with the new found craze of Disposable vapes playing a key part in this.

In this article, I will take a deeper dive into the statistics of underage users of e cigarettes, look at what’s causing this, how many there are, and what exactly is being done to fight this sudden epidemic among the vaping world.

The facts and figures on e cigarette use by underage users

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH for short) have been studying and publicising reports on the use of both tobacco products and e cigarettes since around 2013. Action on Smoking and Health’s studies provide comprehensive and accurate information on these topics, and are a very trust worthy source of information.

I’ll pick out some key parts of their most recent study from March and published in July that specifically looked into the use of e cigarettes by underage users.

  • Vaping regularly among children aged between 11-17 has risen from 4% in 2020 to 7% in 2022

  • The amount of children aged between 11-17 that have admitted to trying an e cigarette in the past has risen from 14% in 2020 to 16% in 2022

These numbers alone are alarming enough that 7% of 11-17 year olds in the UK are currently vaping on a regular basis. This means children in secondary and even in some primary schools have access to and use an e cigarette regularly, quite shocking when it’s thought of like that.

Disposable vapes are the popular e cigarette of choice amongst this crowd, with 52% of current vapers using them, compared to only 7% back in 2020, an increase of more than 7 times the amount in 2020!

There’s always been a cause for concern on the increasing popularity of disposable vapes amongst underage users, and this is the first time that data has been released to show the amount of underage users and just how concerned we should be.

Action on Smoking and Health asked the reason why these young people vape regularly, or as to why they had tried it in the past, and “I like the flavours” was the most popular answer to the question. And who can blame them when flavours like strawberry ice cream and blueberry bubble gum are on the market. Something definitely needs to be done in regards to more regulations being bought in to these disposables vapes to stop these numbers rising. I’ve shared my views in another article on the website, which you can read HERE

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Where are underage users getting their E Cigarettes from?

E Cigarettes carry the same minimum legal age requirement as tobacco products and you must be 18 years or older to be able to purchase them. So if such a high volume of 11-17 year olds are using them, how are they getting their hands on them?

Action on Smoking and Health reports show that 32% said they were given them, 20% bought them online, and believe it or not, ASH’s survey data showed that 47% of underage users got their vaping equipment from shops!

This sent shockwaves through to Department of Health and Social Care, the MHRA and Trading Standards, and immediate action was commissioned by these bodies for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute to carry out immediate and rapid review of compliance when this data was compiled.

CTSI carried out 442 test purchases by using young people under the legal age (18) to try and purchase vaping products from various different retailers that sell vaping products. Illegal sales were made 145 times, equalling a 33% non-compliance rate, with underage sales being highest in mobile phone shops or discount shops. And to make matters worse, over a quarter of the devices bought illegally were actually non compliant with TPD Legislations and shouldn’t have been on sale in the first place.

Hats off to the local trading standards authorities for working quick to strike on this matter, and for continuing to attempt to crackdown on the amount of counterfeit vaping equipment being sold, both to people of the legal vaping age and those are not.

It’s worse across the pond right now…

Although the figures for underage vaping here in the UK is bad, it’s considerably worse across the pond in the USA. So bad it’s being dubbed a “vaping epidemic” on the border of reaching crisis levels.

Vaping in America is completely different to vaping here in the UK, specifically the way things are regulated and what can and can’t be sold in shops. The biggest difference is that Nicotine strengths can be sold up to 50mg in the USA, where as 20mg nicotine is the legal limit in the UK. It’s been reported that users under the age of 18 using nicotine products that are 50mg in strength had suffered from adverse health effects due to the amount of nicotine they are ingesting at a frequent rate.

The so called “Epidemic” started booming with the introduction of Juul, a disposable pod based e cigarette that was aggressively advertised and marketed and targeted towards younger audiences. A method that the company came heavily under fire for. It’s reported that 1 in 4 teenagers use Juul, and the pods contain vape juice with a nicotine level of 50mg, thus resulting in a mass group of teenagers with a nicotine dependence and addiction.

Recently, Juul were forced to hand over an eye watering $40 Million to the state of North Carolina after they were successfully sued by the State Attorney on the grounds that they are responsible for this epidemic of teen vaping within the United States.

Juul had recently been banned from being sold in the USA due to the above mentioned, but the ban has been put on hold temporarily by the FDA whilst it investigates further.   

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Marketing, Advertising and Social Media

All nicotine based products must come with a clearly displayed health warning as part of the TPD legislation bought in in 2016. This legislation also enforced that cigarettes & tobacco pouches must be plain packaging with a health warning present, and they must not be displayed in sight of public view, normally now stored in cabinets with sliding doors obstructing the view of them.

This ruling does not apply to vaping products however, and nearly all vaping related products are open to public view, including all of the bright and vibrant colours seen on the packaging of disposable vapes.

ASH asked about branding when surveying underage users and 40% of people asked admitted that they opted for specific e cigarettes “because they liked the colour of it or what the packaging looked like” This should be more than enough reason for the government to clamp down on how things are packaged and should follow suit with how cigarettes are packaged.

You may not be aware, but in the UK there are strict regulations that prohibit the advertisement of e cigarettes or vape juice on TV, Radio, or online promotion through sponsored posts on social media. Following on from the epidemic caused by them in the States, Juul deleted all of their social media platforms and the USA then made it illegal to sell or market vaping products to anyone under the age of 21. Something Juul had previously been renowned for…

Whilst I don’t have an exact number, there’s no doubt that a huge percentage of young/underage people have access to social media and have accounts on at least one of the platforms.

This is likely where they will be exposed to marketing of e cigarettes by companies in one way or another, as it is impossible to police every single page on every platform. Pages put 18+ on their adverts or pages, but unless they have a specific age verification tool, young people can access the pages with ease.

TikTok is arguably the biggest social media platform online today, and it’s user base of 11-17 year olds is astronomical. Elf Bar recently came under fire after a very well known influencer was “gifted” a large box of Elf Bar disposable vape kits, and they recorded a TikTok video showing what they had received, whilst subliminally marketing Elf Bars to their audience. Since then, Elf Bar have either been removed, or removed themselves from TikTok.

Other pages are also advertising the sale of Elf Bars or Geek Bar to people underage who can’t buy them in shops, offering to conceal them in things like clothes or trainers, so “your parents would never know” it’s all so wrong how many loopholes are being found and exploited, with black marketers and certain companies back handed marketing techniques getting cleverer as the days go by.

Conclusion

To conclude my article, I believe there is a lot of work that needs to be done to stop youth vaping in the UK from reaching “epidemic” levels of which the USA has seen. I question the government’s ambition to want to get involved with this situation and begin cracking down and making changes. It seems this increasingly challenging situation is being left to local authorities to intervene and tackle retailers selling electronic cigarettes to people who are under the legal age, but with continued government funding cuts it’s becoming harder and harder for them to act quick enough and have the numbers to cover big enough areas, and perhaps additional funding is needed in this area.

Over the last decade, the popularity of vaping has become nothing short of extraordinary, but sadly so is the amount of underage users. Stopping companies from aiming at a specific target audience to prevent young people from vaping is one of the big things I think that needs an intervention by the appropriate authorities for sure.