The children’s commissioner for England has urged ministers to crack down on the “insidious” marketing of vapes to young people, which is leaving them so addicted to nicotine they can’t concentrate on lessons.
Rachel de Souza said the government would be “failing a generation” if these “highly addictive and sometimes dangerous products” were allowed to become mainstream.
Her comments are underpinned by research into the experiences of 3,500 young people across the UK, which found “deeply worrying” evidence that children feel pressured to vape, with addictions preventing some from concentrating for whole lessons, while others are avoiding school toilets for fear of peer pressure to vape.
The findings have spurred De Souza to call for the government to ban disposable vapes, which are popular among children, and for regulation to mirror that of tobacco, including plain packaging and age-of-sale signage. She also called for a ban on nicotine-free vapes, which are seen as a gateway to vapes with nicotine.
She said: “We urgently need stricter regulation of this ‘wild west’ market. It is insidious that these products are intentionally marketed and promoted to children, both online and offline.
“Many children who are addicted to vaping have never even smoked tobacco, with vaping acting as a gateway rather than a quitting strategy. Children deserve to lead long, happy, healthy lives, which is why I am unequivocal in my view that no child should be smoking or vaping.”
The research found that children and parents wanted more information about vaping’s harms and tighter regulation. De Souza said school leaders had been “horrified” to find that vapes confiscated from students contained “dangerously high levels of chemicals like nickel and lead”, exposure to which can affect the central nervous system and brain development.
While she welcomed the government’s recent move to close the loophole that allows companies to give free vaping samples to children, and the announcement of a new illicit vape enforcement squad, she said “we need stricter regulation now”, along with “swift and non-judgmental health support” to children who are already addicted.
The Department of Health and Social Care’s consultation on youth vaping, which closed on 6 June, should be “the catalyst for change that is so urgently needed”, De Souza urged.
On Tuesday, the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health called for a ban on disposable vapes, which would bring the UK more closely in line with comparable countries. Australia has made vaping prescription-only, while New Zealand banned most disposable vapes this week and will no longer allow new vape shops near schools. Scotland, France, Germany and Ireland all also have tougher rules.
De Souza’s call draws on data gathered from nearly 500,000 children as part of a wide-ranging survey looking into happiness and wellbeing in England. Children were asked what they thought would stop them from achieving what they wanted to when the grew up, to which many responded that vaping would. Their concerns focused on the lack of parental support to stop vaping, peer pressure from other children, and the influence of social media.
Asked what the government should do to make children’s lives better, children and adults mentioned the need to prevent children from vaping, such as enforcing bans. Parents also raised concerns about child-friendly packaging and flavourings.
The research also showed that vulnerable children, such as those regularly seen by a social worker or those who had a disabled parent, might be more likely to vape than those who did not. The analysis suggested that children who had vaped were less likely to believe that vapes were harmful than those who had not.
One child who responded to the research said: “I can’t use the toilets at school because everyone is vaping in there.”
Another said: “I’ve also noticed how some of the popular kids in my school have found their interest in vapes [and] drugs and that speaks for itself and most of us are only 13!”
One 12-year-old girl said: “I believe many children are being influenced to do wrong things because social media is promoting them such as drugs, teen pregnancy, smoking and vaping etc.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “It is illegal to sell nicotine vapes to children and we are concerned about the recent rises in youth vaping – particularly because of the unknown long-term harms.
“We are taking bold action to crack down on youth vaping through the £3m illicit vapes enforcement squad to tackle underage sales to children. We also launched a call for evidence to identify opportunities to reduce the number of children accessing and using vape products and explore where the government can go further.”