THE argument that vaping helps people quit smoking tobacco has been widely made in recent years, but there is now growing concern at the number of young teens who vape as a ‘rite of passage’ through secondary school.
Advocates for the youth information service, Spunout, have said vaping is increasingly seen as “attractive” to teens.
E-cigarettes, known also as vapes, heat nicotine, water, and propylene glycol or glycerine, with flavourings, but do not produce tar or carbon monoxide.
The vaping market has grown exponentially in recent years, with an endless offering of flavours that appeal to younger people, including banana, cola, apple, pink lemonade, bubblegum, coffee, and mango.
The dizzying array of colourful packaging is a million miles away from the old-fashioned ‘Marlboro Man’.
The EU recently identified a 10% sales growth in heated tobacco across the region, with sales spiking even higher in some countries. The European Commission is considering a ban on some products under its smoking-reduction policies.
Nineteen-year-old Katelyn Benson says discussions around vaping often ignore the views of young people and instead focus on whether or not vaping helps smokers quit tobacco.
“Half of the people I know who vape have never touched a cigarette in their lives,” she said.
“People would shun you if you smoked but they have no problem with vaping.”
Vaping is more attractive, she said, as there is no giveaway reek of tobacco to alert adults.
“It is easier to hide from your parents,” she said. “It tastes sweet, and you can sit on your bed and do it or in the bathroom.
“They’re very cheap too. You go in and get them for €7 or €8,” she said. “They’re for nothing compared to what you spend on cigarettes.”
While it is assumed vaping is healthier than smoking, Ms Benson is concerned at the lack of long-term information on what are relatively new products.
“We don’t really know what it is doing to your system,” she said.
In Cork, one mother, who did not wish to be named, was surprised at how quickly vaping caught on with her teenage son and his friends.
“My son is vaping and he is so healthy, fitness-mad. He plays rugby and hurling, it’s so contradictory,” she said.
Representatives of the Irish Vape Vendors Association (IVVA) recently told TDs they would not object to raising the legal age for buying e-cigarettes upwards from 18.
IVVA director and managing director of Vapourpal, Joanne O’Connell, said: “It’s [vaping] better than smoking but it is not better than not smoking. I would have no problem with the age being increased to 21.”
In her own shop they do police customers’ ages, but she is not reassured this is done in non-specialist shops.
“I agree that some packaging is probably overly colourful. I would not say it is targeted towards kids because adults are attracted to these things too,” she said.
“Adults are attracted to colours and flavourings. We find many of our customers will start on a tobacco flavour but once they start vaping, they really want to be away from the flavour of tobacco completely.”
The Health Research Board has found that e-cigarettes are “less harmful than combustible cigarettes, but health risks remain.”
The HSE advises the safety of long-term use of e-cigarettes is not known and they do not recommend them as an aid to quitting smoking.
The IVVA and others argue the market is already tightly regulated with maximum nicotine concentrations, and volumes for cartridges, tanks, and nicotine liquid containers.
The Public Health (Tobacco and Nicotine Inhaling Products) Bill (2019) is under review. It says shops must apply for a licence to sell vapes and heated tobacco, or a different licence to sell these and cigarettes.
It has been estimated that about 200,000 people use vaping products and they can be bought at more than 300 retailers and newsagents.
John Dunne from Vape Business Ireland told TDs nicotine warnings on products are also mandatory.
Manufacturers, importers and distributors are required to notify the HSE if they believe any product to be unsafe, he explained.
In May, the HSE called on the public to stop using some Aroma King e-cigarettes. Sales were halted because they were found to have as much as 50.4mg/ml nicotine despite labelling saying 20mg/ml.
The alert included disposable Aroma King Bar 600 puffs in flavours such as Ice Skittles and Monster.
At Bridgeways Family Resource Centre in Longford, Grace Kearney said, in her experience, children cannot handle any level of nicotine in e-cigarettes, describing them as “addictive”.
“They have the vape all of the time, sitting and puffing on it regularly,” she said.
“Even a chainsmoker doesn’t have a cigarette all the time, whereas this is constant. It is like an extension of their hand.”
When children do water-sports at the centre she sees their lung capacity is affected, and they are dropping out.
“It is not attractive to smoke, but it is attractive to vape,” she said.
“I know people who got off smoking with vaping, and I understand that. But I don’t agree with children 13 and 14 years old vaping, they have never smoked. They are just vapers.”
She said it has become a “rite of passage” into first year at secondary school.
“It’s not a problem, it’s an epidemic and it is ruining young people’s lives,” she said.
“I have never seen a craze like this. It is so accessible, so cheap. It’s completely geared for young people with all the different flavours.
“I feel that parents and kids don’t realise the impact these highly addictive vapes are having on their lungs, their capacity, and their concentration because they are so addicted to them,” she said.
“I am doing summer camps at the minute, they are doing kayaking, they are doing water activities, they are doing obstacles. And they are not fit for anything,” she said.
“I am looking at 13- and 14-year olds absolutely gasping for breath. This has to do with vaping.”
Ms Kearney is reluctant to ban vaping outright at the centre and instead has restricted use, as she worries teenagers would go somewhere less safe instead.
“When an adult wants to vape, by all means off you go and vape. That’s fine,” she says. “I’m talking about young people and how it’s nearly a rite of passage now into first year.”
Her concerns are echoed at in the new junior cycle social, personal and health education (SPHE) curriculum which includes lessons on vaping, tobacco, nicotine addiction and marketing by vaping and tobacco industries.
Unease is growing too at the involvement of global tobacco companies in vaping and the development of heated tobacco.
“Some of the biggest, most widely available e-cigarette brands are owned by tobacco companies,” California’s Department of Public Health research programme, Still Blowing Smoke, has found.
Indeed the website of the Altria group, formerly known as Philip Morris International of Marlboro Man fame, states they are “in transition” to a smoke-free future. The US Food and Drug Administration recently banned sales of a Juul vaping device and tobacco and menthol flavoured cartridges for failing to meet health standards.
The company, part-owned by Altria, has appealed.
Imperial Brands, formerly Imperial Tobacco, says it is expanding “into potentially less harmful alternatives to traditional tobacco products”.
A smart move by a dying industry or a cynical bet that vaping keeps the puffing habit alive?
The Health Research Board said they found teenagers who use e-cigarettes are three to five times more likely to start smoking tobacco cigarettes compared to those who never vaped.
It is far from just an Irish challenge with British data showing the proportion of children aged 11 to 17 currently vaping jumped from 4% in 2020 to 7% this year.
Disposable vapes were favoured by 52% of those who vaped, up from 7%.
Tiktok was mentioned most often as the source of online promotion (45%), followed by Instagram (31%) and Snapchat (22%).
Ms Benson said: “It’s more of a norm these days. I was at Longitude there a few days ago, and you just saw people vaping all the time.
“You’re surrounded by it so much, you can’t really be like ‘I don’t care about it’. It is everywhere.”