‘Beside himself with craving’: the teenagers hooked on vaping | E-cigarettes
When Sarah caught her 13-year-old son vaping in his room last year, he tried a classic teenage line on her. “He said: ‘It’s not mine, it’s my friend’s,’” remembers the teacher from West Yorkshire. “I said: ‘Yeah, pull the other one, it’s got bells on.’”
Liam*, now 14, first tried vaping with two friends after one of them sneaked a parent’s vape. “They’d been watching videos on TikTok showing tricks you can do,” says Sarah. “I think they thought it was cool.”
Between 2021 and 2022, the proportion of 11- to 17-year-olds in Britain who vape rose from 3.3% to 7%, according to Action on Smoking and Health (Ash). The proportion of those who had tried vaping increased from 11.2% to 15.8%.
A year on, Sarah describes her son as “completely addicted”. When she first caught him vaping, she “dropped down on him really hard”. “We grounded him and took everything off him,” she says. He told her he didn’t realise it was addictive; he thought he’d be able to stop easily.
But a month later he was caught stealing a vape. She was “disgusted” and made him pay the shopkeeper back and write a letter of apology. Feeling “backed into a corner”, Sarah decided to change tack and buy him a refillable vape herself; she hopes she can support him to quit by reducing the strength of the e-liquid.
Liam still vapes every day. He tried to quit last October, announcing one morning that he had smashed up his vape and was going to stop. But when he got home from school that afternoon, he told his mother that he had had “the worst day of his life”.
“He was just beside himself with craving,” says Sarah, adding he had begged her to go and buy him a vape. “He just couldn’t calm down – he was saying: ‘I’m never going to be able to stop.’ It broke my heart.”
Most experts agree that vaping carries far lower health risks than smoking, says Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addiction at King’s College London. “Nicotine is an addictive substance but not the one that kills,” she says. But nuance is important: “If you’ve got something very dangerous and something much less dangerous, it doesn’t mean it’s harmless.”
McNeill last year led an evidence review examining biomarkers of potential harm – measures of biological changes – due to vaping or smoking. “The message from the data was that it’s substantially less harmful than smoking, but not risk free. If you smoke, there’s never going to be a situation when it won’t be safer to vape, but if you’ve never smoked, don’t take up the product.”
The rise of the disposable vape has been meteoric. In 2021, just 7.7% of teenage vapers used them; by 2022, this figure had jumped to 52%, according to Ash. Teenage smoking continues to decline, and for the first time in 2022, the majority of children who had tried vaping did so having never smoked.
McNeill acknowledges that “disposables seem to be more attractive to the younger audience”. “I think that is something we need to look at – if we are seeing ‘never smokers’ taking up disposables, we need to make sure we’re enforcing the law so that these products can’t be sold quite so readily as they clearly are at the moment.”
Sarah says her son was able to buy vapes “very easily”. “He never got challenged – he is tall but there is no way he looks 18, he’s got a baby face. He can’t even get into a 15 at the cinema.”
Liam used to be “mad into mountain biking” but he is “just not interested now – he runs out of breath”, Sarah says. He vapes throughout the day: on the way to school, in the toilets between every lesson, during breaks and on the way home.
It is a story that plays out in many secondary schools. Whereas before the summer holidays, Laura*, a secondary school teacher in Tyne and Wear, would catch a student vaping once a fortnight, lately it’s an everyday occurrence: “From about 13 upwards, many of them have vapes – as soon as they’re out of the school gates they go in their pockets.”
Laura says she has noticed a change in students’ behaviour in class. “You can see when they’re starting to get edgy before break time,” she says. “They might get a bit snappy or angsty. They will then go to the toilets to vape because they haven’t had any for two or three hours in lessons.”
The school has a zero-tolerance policy to vaping on the premises; when students are caught, the e-cigarettes are confiscated and parents or guardians are informed. She says the reaction from parents is mixed; while many are “concerned and disappointed”, some have the opposite reaction, “giving [the vape] back to the student in front of us, and then the students tell us their parent bought the vape for them”.
“Students see it as the norm,” she explains. “Their parents vape, their friends vape. If we’re teaching about smoking, they say it’s disgusting. They see [vaping] as a totally different thing.”
While he may have cadged the odd cigarette at a party, Dan, 19, has never been a smoker. The student from Cambridgeshire is angry about what he sees as vape companies angling their product towards teenagers. “It’s so clearly targeted to the younger generation,” he says. “All the fruity flavours – someone who has been smoking for 20 years doesn’t need a strawberry ice-cream vape. I don’t know anybody who smokes.”
Dan started vaping at 17 after he and three friends bought disposable vapes for a party. “We’d seen people doing it around school and wanted to try it. It was pure stupidity,” he says. “All four of us [now] vape every day, for the past year and a half.”
He began vaping regularly soon after; he had no problem getting them from the corner shop. “It just snowballed – I started buying them every time one died. I hate it so much, it’s so difficult to quit. Among kids and teens it’s such a big problem.”
These days, he goes through two or three disposable vapes a week. He has been trying to quit since January, but is finding it tough: it’s just too easy to vape. “It’s constantly just there – say you smoke cigarettes, you’re forced to go outside. When you vape, you can do it everywhere.”
Though he is concerned about the environmental impact, Dan has only ever used disposable vapes; he finds the flavours more appealing and the convenience hard to beat. “I think they should be banned, to be honest,” he says. “Banning them will force people like me to make a mental decision to buy a proper vape, or just stop. They have hooked the younger generation on nicotine.”
* Names have been changed