Lindsey Smith’s son was 14 when he bought his first vaporizer. Immersed in videos of YouTubers making “ghost puffs” with the vapor, he decided he wanted to try it himself.
At first he spent hours copying the strangers online – sitting in his bedroom and practicing exhalation techniques to create the ghostly clouds he saw on his screen.
While he started using watermelon flavored vapes with 2% nicotine bought from an older boy at school with his £5 a week pocket money, his friends had acquired illegal devices with up to 12.5% nicotine – more than six times the legal limit.
“He started trying harder and harder things to get a little buzz,” said Smith, 42, an exam developer from Cramlington, Northumberland. “Where before he had obsessions like gambling Minecraftnow it’s steaming.”
Smith is one of many parents across the UK who are concerned at how vaping is gaining popularity among children without any warning from health officials or the government of the risk of an epidemic.
Although it’s illegal to sell the devices to under-18s, research indicates a steep increase in underage vaping over the past five years, with the proportion of 16-18 year olds reporting using e-cigarettes increasing use has doubled in the past 12 months alone, according to Action on Smoking and Health.
Last weekend the observer revealed how Elf Bar, one of the leading disposable vaporizer brands, appears to have broken rules to promote its products to young people on social media app TikTok.
Now, pediatric respiratory doctors have criticized the government for failing to heed warnings about the risks of selling e-cigarettes in kid-friendly packaging that include the names of popular sweet treats – including banana milkshake and jelly beans, both of which contain 2% nicotine , the highest concentration permitted in the UK.
Prof Andrew Bush, a consultant pediatric thoracic physician at Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals, said: “I am concerned that we are sleepwalking into a public health disaster with a generation of children addicted to nicotine.”
There are concerns about the long term health effects of vaping and that many of the products sold in the UK are illegal and may contain banned chemicals or super strong nicotine.
When Smith discovered her son’s habit, she tried to stop it. She confiscated the vapes that contained nicotine and, as a compromise, told him he could have nicotine-free ones, which would allow him to continue practicing his vapor tricks without the addictive chemicals.
She thought he was getting bored with it, but within a few weeks he was drawn back to vaping. Eight months later, he’s tried vapes containing THC – tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis – and the synthetic cannabinoid spice, and started smoking cigarettes, also given to him by classmates. “If I weren’t in this situation as a parent, I would be like, ‘Just say no, go for it.’ But it’s not that easy,” she said.
Three hundred miles away in Dursley, Gloucestershire, Sharon Carter, 47, faces a similar dilemma. Her son first tried vaping when he was 11, three weeks into starting secondary school after being “offered a puff” by an older child. She later discovered that he and his friends hid vape products in a tote bag, which they stashed in a bush and picked up each afternoon on their way home from school.
Now 12 years old, he was caught by a teacher outside the school gates puffing on a vape and trying to use a blueberry-flavored one secretly in his bedroom. “I walked in not long after and could smell it. He tried to pass it off as chewing gum. I searched his room and found it and turned him away,” said Carter, an export specialist.
The mother of two has tried to cut off his pocket money and is now picking him up at school instead of walking him home. But their efforts so far have been in vain. “I’ve done everything I can, but I just feel so helpless,” she said. “He loves running and soccer and is very athletic, so I said, ‘You could jeopardize what you love most,’ but he just shrugs.”
“It seems like manufacturers are designing them with young people in mind,” she added. “When you smell a cigarette it’s like ‘eurgh’ but the smells and flavors of vaporizers are so appealing. It’s like alcopops again.”
A London father, who asked not to be named, echoed her concerns. His 16-year-old daughter, who has asthma, began vaping during her GCSEs to help her “calm down” and now vapes “the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day,” he said. “She said, ‘This one changes color and there’s a monkey on top of this one. You’re so sick,” he said. “It really is an epidemic among our teenage children.”
Another parent said one of their teenage twin girls started vaping when he was 12 and their son started when he was 14. “He buys them at the local store with no problem, but no one seems to care because it’s not tobacco. Now many children are becoming addicted to nicotine and the cigarette industry has a new customer base,” she said.
For years ministers have been keen to promote e-cigarettes because “they carry a fraction of the risk of smoking” and believe they can play a key role in reducing the 78,000 people who smoke in the UK each year be killed by smoking.
But there is growing concern among teachers, medical experts, and trade standards officials that vapes are too accessible to children. They say the devices should be a “cessation tool,” not a “cool tool,” and are calling for tighter controls to ensure vapes are only used as a smoking cessation product.
Sarah Brown, Lecturer and Consultant in Pediatric Respiratory Medicine, said: “The medical profession was fooled by the tobacco industry years ago into endorsing cigarettes, and we now endorse vaping. As a colleague of mine said: “Fool me for once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’”
She added: “Children and adolescents’ brains are wired differently than adults’, so they become addicted to nicotine at a much faster rate than an adult. It’s a big concern.” Brown also said that the long-term effects of vaping are still largely unknown.
Although e-cigarettes are considered to be a much safer alternative to tobacco, they are potentially harmful to health. A report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found in December 2019 that e-cigarette use significantly increases a person’s risk of developing chronic lung diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema
Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Pediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine, co-authored an article in the Archives of childhood illnesses in November 2018, which warned that thousands of children could become addicted to nicotine due to the “complacency” of public health officials in the UK.
He said: “We saw this coming and were ignored. The trajectory was obvious.”
A review by former Barnardo chief executive Javed Khan of the government’s ambition to make England smoke-free by 2030 says vaping needs to be encouraged to reduce smoking, but the government should “do everything it can.” ‘ to discourage young people from vaping. among other things, by banning child-friendly packaging and descriptions”.
A spokesman for the Department for Health and Social Care said the UK has “some of the strictest regulations on e-cigarettes to protect children and young people” and was considering further action: “We realize that e-cigarettes should only be used to help people to help quit smoking – vapes should not be used by children, adolescents or non-smokers.”
Following a community callout last week, the observer was contacted by more than 50 families from across the country who shared their experiences of youth vaping.
While most came from parents keen to discourage their kids from vaping, others were more nuanced. One mother said that since her teenage daughter started vaping, it seems her self-injury had stopped. Another said her teenager claimed e-cigarettes helped him manage his stress and anger, which previously fueled a debilitating illness. Others said they see vaping as “the lesser evil” and would prefer their child to vape than smoke, drink or use drugs.
But everyone said they would prefer their kids not to use vapes at all.
Maria King, 47, a mother of two from Eastbourne, East Sussex, believes there is an urgent need to tighten regulation – and enforce existing advertising rules – to prevent more children from taking up vaping.
Her own son started vaping at the age of 13 after hanging out with friends over the summer holidays and watching videos on TikTok of vapers “blowing funny smoke rings”. She said the habit made him “irrational” and “excited” and “changed the family dynamic.” She added, “From a household where we were playing games on a Friday night, he would be sitting in his room alone.”
But King, a business owner, said her son, now 14, has been “very honest” with her about his use of vapes and that she has now been able to wean him off by using lower-strength nicotine products.
She has started a petition urging the government to crack down on companies she says are targeting children directly. “What we’re seeing as parents is that their looks — Slush Puppie, Skittles, Fanta lookalikes — aren’t marketing to 18+ current smokers,” she said.
She added: “We cannot and should not have to lock up our children. The ones that make these products so attractive and readily available must be stopped.”
Additional Reporting: Alfie Packham