Person holding an e-cigarette or vaping device with smoke surrounding it

Awareness of vaping risks key to reducing e-cigarette use among young people

15-30-year-olds in the UK who perceived e-cigarettes as harmful were 40% less likely to use them compared to those who do not consider them harmful. Yet only 53% of those using e-cigarettes at least monthly said they had seen warning labels on packaging, finds research from The George Institute for Global Health.

The findings, published today in the Journal of Public Health, are based on a survey of over 1,000 individuals that was designed to better understand the attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs around e-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes, also known as ‘vapes’) among this age group, particularly in the context of their rising use. In 2021, it was estimated that four million people aged 16 years and over currently used e-cigarettes daily or occasionally in the UK.

About one in five respondents reported currently using e-cigarettes at least monthly (with 90% having used ones containing nicotine), and one in ten used them every day. The most common reason for using e-cigarettes was because a friend used them, with 23% of participants who used e-cigarettes at least monthly saying they have three close friends who use e-cigarettes.

While these findings may not be generalisable to the entire age group, they may be indicative of the attitudes of e-cigarette users. Dr Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes, Honorary Research Fellow at The George Institute, UK who led the research said:

“Our findings suggest that peer behaviour is a key driver of e-cigarette use, while awareness of the harms of vaping is a deterrent. Awareness-raising campaigns aimed at young people (such as at schools and college) and on social media are needed to highlight the known risks of e-cigarette use, as well as uncertainty over their long-term health impacts.”

In addition to health risks, discarded e-cigarettes carry environmental harms, generating considerable amounts of plastic and electronic waste. Three out of four 15-19-year-old vapers surveyed used disposable e-cigarettes, which are often cheaper than the refillable alternative. This reflects a widely reported upward trend in the use of disposable devices among teenagers.

The survey builds on an international study on e-cigarette susceptibility involving 4,007 young people, which revealed almost two-thirds of 15-30-year-olds in the UK who have never used e-cigarettes may be susceptible to taking up vaping in the future, and around the same amount had been exposed to e-cigarette advertising. By using colourful packaging, fruity flavours, and cheap disposable vapes, the e-cigarette industry has created products that are designed to appeal to young people.

Dr Pinho-Gomes concluded:

“The UK Government must build on these findings by raising awareness of the potential harms of vaping, both to health and the environment, through public education campaigns and through tighter regulation around packaging and labelling.

“Although e-cigarettes may help with smoking cessation, their use by non-smokers, particularly young people, should be strongly discouraged. Until further evidence is available on their long-term consequences, a precautionary approach is advisable and the UK government should consider the cautious approach to their regulation adopted by other countries, such as Australia.”