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In England, e-cigarettes that contain nicotine cannot be legally sold to under 18s. Despite this, the rate of vaping (the use of e-cigarettes) among young people is increasing.

The government intends to introduce measures that will make vaping products less appealing and less accessible to children.

The government also intends to prohibit the sale of non-nicotine e-cigarettes to under 18s. The government has also said it will close a loophole which permits free samples of nicotine and non-nicotine e-cigarettes to be given to under-18s.

The government has indicated that its forthcoming Tobacco and Vapes Bill, announced in the King’s Speech 2023, will provide for some of these measures.

Prevalence, patterns and perceptions

In 2023, a survey conducted by the tobacco control charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) found that 3.7% of young people aged 11 to 18 in Great Britain vape regularly.

The International Tobacco Control study (ITC, an international cohort study on smoking and vaping) found that 24% of people aged 16-to-19 years in England reported having vaped in the past 30 days in 2022.

The Office for National Statistics has published data on e-cigarette use in Great Britain. It showed that, in 2022, 16-to-24-year-olds were more likely to report daily or occasional vaping than all other age groups.

Young peoples’ motivations for vaping vary. A survey from ASH found that 54% of young people aged 11 to 18 in England report having begun vaping “just to give it a try”.

The ITC study found that other commonly reported reasons for vaping (PDF) include enjoying the flavour of e-cigarettes, dealing with stress and anxiety and curiosity.

Young adults demonstrated a good awareness of vaping harms in the ITC survey. 84% of young people in England, aged 16-to-19-years, acknowledged that there was some degree of harm associated with daily vaping. 16% of this cohort reported that vaping had improved their mental health.

In the ASH survey, among 11-to-18-year-olds in Great Britain, the proportion of young people that (correctly) identified e-cigarettes as being less harmful than conventional cigarettes fell from 73% in 2013 to 33% in 2023.

Most 16-to-19-year-olds in England in the ITC survey did not perceive vaping to be fashionable. When asked to what extent they agreed with the statement “vapes look cool”, 54% disagreed or strongly disagreed, while 20% agreed or strongly agreed.

Concerns around youth vaping

Gateway concerns

There is wide consensus that vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking; however, many public health authorities are recommending that e‑cigarettes should only be used by people trying to stop smoking. Despite this, 2.3% of young people who have never smoked currently use e-cigarettes, according to ASH.

There are suggestions that vaping could act as a “gateway”, encouraging those who vape but had never previously smoked to take up tobacco smoking. These concerns, however, have not been evidenced by smoking rates among young people, which have continued to decline since 1996.

Marketing, promotion and sale of e-cigarettes

Health organisations, such as the British Medical Association, expressed concerns about marketing and promotion practices used by e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers.

Others have asserted that vaping companies are deliberately targeting vaping products at young people by using promotional characters and bright colours on packaging and flavour names resembling sweets.

The sale of nicotine vaping products to under 18s is prohibited across the UK. In response to the ASH survey, young people aged 11-to-17-years-old reported being able to buy e-cigarettes (PDF) in shops, markets, over the internet or purchased from acquaintances. 

Health and behavioural concerns

Academics have cautioned that the potential long-term health impacts of vaping remain uncertain. There is also concern that young people may be more susceptible to some of those health impacts. Research suggests that vaping is associated with an increased incidence of mental health conditions among young people; however, there is no evidence to suggest that vaping causes mental ill health.

School leaders have expressed significant concern about pupils’ use of e‑cigarettes, particularly on school premises, and the resultant effect on behaviour and wellbeing.

Government action on youth vaping

The government has set out an intention to reduce youth vaping, while maintaining access to e-cigarettes for adults using them as smoking cessation aids. In an October 2023 consultation on tackling youth vaping, the government set out several proposals aimed at reducing youth vaping, including:

  • restricting vape flavours
  • regulating vape packaging and product presentation
  • regulating point of sale displays
  • restricting the sale of disposable vapes
  • introducing an age restriction for non-nicotine vapes
  • preventing industry giving out free samples of vapes to children.

Further research from the Commons Library

Further Library research is available on the tobacco and vaping hub.

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