Lindsey Smith’s son was 14 when he bought his first vape. Absorbed by videos of YouTubers doing “phantom puffs” with steam, he decided he wanted to try it for himself.
At first, he would spend hours trying to copy the strangers online – sitting in his bedroom and practicing exhalation techniques to create the ghost-like 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 pocket money of £5 a week, his friends had obtained illegal devices containing up to at 12.5% nicotine – more than six times the legal limit.
“He started trying harder and harder stuff to get some buzz,” said Smith, 42, an exam developer from Cramlington, Northumberland. “Where before he had obsessions like playing Minecraftnow it’s vaping.
Smith is one of many parents across the UK alarmed at how vaping has quietly grown in popularity among children, with little warning of the risk of an outbreak from health officials or the government.
Although it is illegal to sell the devices to those under 18, research indicates a sharp increase in underage vaping over the past five years, with the proportion of 16-18 year olds who report using e-cigarettes having doubled in the past. 12 months alone, according to Action on smoking and health .
Last weekend the Observer revealed how Elf Bar, a leading disposable vape brand, was apparently flouting the rules to promote its products to young people on the social media app TikTok.
Now children’s respiratory doctors have slammed the government for ignoring warnings about the risks of allowing e-cigarettes to be sold in child-friendly packs bearing the names of popular sugary treats – including milkshakes. banana and jelly babies, both of which contain 2% nicotine, the highest concentration permitted in the UK.
Professor Andrew Bush, consultant physician in pediatric pulmonology at Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals, said: ‘I fear we are sleepwalking into a public health catastrophe with a generation of children addicted to nicotine.
There are concerns about the long-term health effects of vaping and that many products on sale in the UK are illegal and may contain banned chemicals or super potent nicotine.
When Smith found out about her son’s habit, she tried to suppress it. She confiscated the nicotine-containing vapes and, as a compromise, said he could have nicotine-free ones, which would allow him to continue practicing his vaping tricks without the addictive chemicals.
She thought he would tire of it, but within weeks he was brought back to vaping. Eight months later, he tried vapes containing THC – tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component of cannabis – and the synthetic cannabinoid Spice, and started smoking cigarettes, also obtained through classmates. “As a parent, if I wasn’t in that situation, I would say, ‘Just say no, put your foot down.’ But it’s not that easy,” she said.
Two hundred miles away in Dursley, Gloucestershire, 47-year-old Sharon Carter faces a similar dilemma. Her son first tried vaping aged 11, three weeks after starting secondary school, after being “offered a puff” by an older child. She later discovered that he and his friends hid vaping products in a carrier bag hidden in a bush that they collected each afternoon on their way home from school.
Now 12, he has since been caught pulling a vape by a teacher outside the school gates and secretly trying to use a blueberry-flavored one in his bedroom. “I walked in shortly after and I could feel it. He tried to pass it off as chewing gum. I searched her room and found her and told her to leave,” said Carter, an export specialist.
The mother-of-two tried to cut off his pocket money and is now picking him up inside the school premises rather than letting him walk home. But his efforts so far have been in vain. “I did everything I could but I feel totally helpless,” she said. “He loves running and football and he’s very athletic, so I said, ‘You could jeopardize what you love the most’, but he shrugs it off.”
“It seems that 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 vapes are so appealing. It’s like alcopops again.
A London father, who asked not to be named, echoed his concerns. His asthmatic 16-year-old daughter started 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’s changing colors, and this one has a monkey on it. They’re so sick,’ he said. “It’s really an epidemic among our teenagers.”
Another parent said one of her teenage twins started vaping at 12 and her son started at 14. “He easily buys them at the local store, but nobody seems to care because it’s not tobacco. Meanwhile, many children are becoming addicted to nicotine and the cigarette industry has a new pool of customers,” she said.
For years, ministers have been keen to promote vaping because “they carry a fraction of the risk of smoking” and consider that they can play a key role in reducing the 78,000 people killed each year in the UK by smoking.
But teachers, medical experts and trade standards officials are increasingly concerned that vapes are too readily available to children. They say the devices should be a “quitting tool,” not a “cool tool,” and call for tighter controls to ensure vapes are only used as a smoking cessation aid.
Sarah Brown, lecturer and consultant in pediatric respiratory medicine, said: “The medical profession was tricked by the tobacco industry years ago into endorsing cigarettes and now we endorsing vaping. As one of my colleagues said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.'”
She added: “Children and young people’s brains are wired differently than adults, so they become addicted to nicotine much faster than an adult. This is a big concern. Brown also said the long-term effects of vaping are still largely unknown.
Although electronic cigarettes are considered a much safer alternative to tobacco, they are still potentially dangerous to health. A report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in December 2019, e-cigarette use significantly increased the 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 who warned there was a risk of thousands of children becoming addicted to nicotine due to the ‘complacency’ of government 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 said vaping should be promoted to reduce smoking, but the government should do “everything it can” to prevent young people from vaping, “including banning child-friendly packaging and descriptions”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said the UK had “some of the strictest vaping regulations in place to protect children and young people” and was considering further action: “We are clear that vaping should only be used to help people quit smoking. – vapes should not be used by children, young people or non-smokers.
After a call to the community last week, the Observer has been contacted by over 50 families from across the country sharing their experiences on youth vaping.
While most came from parents desperate to stop their kids from vaping, others were more nuanced. A mother said that since she started vaping, her teenage daughter seemed to have stopped self-harming. Another said her teenager claimed e-cigarettes helped him deal with his stress and anger, which had previously triggered a debilitating medical condition. Others said they consider vaping “the lesser of the evils” and would rather their child vape than smoke, drink or do drugs.
But all said they would rather their children not use vapes at all.
Maria King, 47, a mother of two from Eastbourne, East Sussex, believes there is an urgent need to tighten regulations – and enforce existing advertising rules – to stop more children vaping.
Her own son started vaping at the age of 13 after being surrounded by friends over summer vacation and watching videos on TikTok showing vapers “blowing funny smoke rings”. She said the habit made him “irrational” and “agitated”, and “changed the family dynamic”. She added: “From a household where we were playing games on a Friday night, he was going to sit alone in his room.”
But King, a business owner, said her son, now 14, was “very honest” with her about his use of vapes and she has now been able to wean him off using vapes. less concentrated nicotine products.
She has started a petition calling on the government to crack down on companies that she says directly target children. “What we find as parents is that their looks – Slush Puppie, Skittles, Fanta lookalikes – are not intended for current smokers over the age of 18,” she said.
She added: “We can’t lock up our children and we shouldn’t have to. Those who make these products so attractive and readily available must be stopped.
Additional reporting: Alfie Packham