The argument that vaping helps people quit smoking tobacco has been widely publicized in recent years, but there is now growing concern about the number of young teens vaping as a “rite of passage” in high school.
Advocates for youth information service Spunout have said that vaping is increasingly seen as “appealing” to teenagers.
E-cigarettes, also known as vaporizers, heat nicotine, water, and flavored propylene glycol or glycerin, but do not produce tar or carbon monoxide.
The vaping market has grown exponentially in recent years, with an endless supply of flavors that appeal to the youngest, such as banana, cola, apple, pink lemonade, bubble gum, coffee and mango.
The dizzying array of colorful packaging is a million miles away from the old-fashioned ‘Marlboro Man’.
The EU recently identified a 10% growth in heating tobacco sales across the region, with sales increasing further in some countries. The European Commission is considering banning some products under its smoking reduction policies.
Nineteen-year-old Katelyn Benson says that discussions of vaping often ignore the views of young people and instead focus on whether or not vaping helps smokers quit.
“Half of the people I know who vape have never touched a cigarette in their life,” he said.
“People would avoid you if you smoked, but they don’t have a problem with vaping.”
Vaping is more appealing, he said, since there’s no tobacco smell to alert adults.
“It’s easier to hide from your parents,” he said. “It tastes sweet, and you can sit on your bed and do it or in the bathroom.
“They are very cheap too. You go in and you buy them for 7 or 8 euros,” she said. “They are worth nothing compared to what you spend on cigarettes.”
While vaping is supposed to be healthier than smoking, Benson is concerned about the lack of long-term data on relatively new products.
“We really don’t know what it’s doing to your system,” he said.
In Cork, a mother, who did not want to be named, was surprised at how quickly vaping became popular with her teenage son and his friends.
“My son is vaping and he is so healthy, crazy about exercise. He plays rugby and hurling, he’s very contradictory,” he said.
Representatives from the Irish Vape Sellers Association (IVVA) recently told TDs that they would not be opposed to raising the legal age to buy e-cigarettes from 18.
IVVA Director and Vapourpal Managing Director Joanne O’Connell said: “It’s [vaping] better than smoking but not better than not smoking. I would have no problem with the age being raised to 21.”
In her own store they check the age of the customers, but she is not sure if this is done in non-specialized stores.
“I agree that some packaging is probably too colourful. I wouldn’t say it’s geared towards kids because adults are drawn to this stuff too,” she said.
“Adults are attracted to colors and flavors. We find that many of our customers will start out with a tobacco flavor, but once they start vaping, they really want to get away from the tobacco flavor entirely.”
The Health Research Board found that e-cigarettes are “less harmful than combustible cigarettes, but health risks remain.”
The HSE advises that the safety of long-term use of e-cigarettes is unknown and they are not recommended as an aid to smoking cessation.
The IVVA and others argue that the market is already strictly regulated with maximum nicotine concentrations and volumes for cartridges, tanks and liquid nicotine containers.
The Public Health (Tobacco and Nicotine Inhalation Products) Bill (2019) is under review. It says stores must apply for a license to sell vaporizers and heating tobacco, or a different license to sell these and cigarettes.
Vaping products have been used by an estimated 200,000 people and can be purchased at over 300 retailers and kiosks.
Vape Business Ireland’s John Dunne told TD that nicotine warnings on products are also mandatory.
Manufacturers, importers and distributors are required to notify the HSE if they believe a product is unsafe, he explained.
In May, the HSE called on the public to stop using some Aroma King e-cigarettes. Sales stopped because they were found to contain up to 50.4mg/ml of nicotine despite the label saying 20mg/ml.
The alert included Aroma King Bar 600 disposable puffs in flavors like Ice Skittles and Monster.
At the Bridgeways Family Resource Center in Longford, Grace Kearney said that in her experience, children can’t tolerate any level of nicotine in e-cigarettes, describing them as “addictive.”
“They have the vape all the time, they sit down and smoke it regularly,” he said.
“Even a heavy smoker doesn’t have a cigarette all the time, whereas this is constant. It’s like an extension of his hand.”
When children practice water sports in the center their lung capacity is affected and they are leaving.
“It’s not cool to smoke, but it’s cool to vape,” he said.
“I know people who started vaping, and I get it. But I don’t agree with 13 and 14 year olds vaping, they have never smoked. They’re just vapers.”
She said it has become a “rite of passage” in the first year of high school.
“It is not a problem, it is an epidemic and it is ruining the lives of young people,” he said.
“I have never seen madness like this. It’s so accessible, so cheap. It is completely geared towards young people with all different tastes.
“I feel like parents and kids don’t realize the impact these highly addictive vapes have on their lungs, their capacity and their concentration because they’re so addicted to them,” he said.
“I’m doing summer camps right now, they’re kayaking, they’re doing water activities, they’re doing obstacles. And they serve no purpose,” she said.
“I am seeing 13 and 14 year olds absolutely breathless. This has to do with vaping.”
Ms Kearney is reluctant to ban vaping at the center and has restricted use instead, as she worries teens will go somewhere less safe.
“When an adult wants to vape, of course they go and vape. That’s fine,” she says. “I’m talking about the youngsters and how it’s almost a rite of passage now in the freshman year.”
Their concerns are reflected in the new junior social, personal and health education (SPHE) curriculum, which includes lessons on vaping, tobacco, nicotine addiction and marketing by companies. vaping and tobacco industries.
Concern is also growing over the involvement of global tobacco companies in vaping and the development of heated tobacco.
“Some of the largest and most widely available e-cigarette brands are owned by tobacco companies,” the California Department of Public Health’s Still Blowing Smoke research program found.
In fact, the website for the Altria group, formerly known as Marlboro Man’s Philip Morris International, states that they are “transitioning” to a smoke-free future. The US Food and Drug Administration recently banned sales of a Juul vaping device and tobacco- and menthol-flavored cartridges for failing to meet health standards.
The company, partly 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 from a dying industry or a cynical bet that vaping keeps smoking alive?
The Health Research Board said it found that teens who use e-cigarettes are three to five times more likely to start smoking tobacco cigarettes compared to those who never vape.
It’s far from just an Irish challenge, as British data shows the proportion of 11-17 year olds currently vaping rose from 4% in 2020 to 7% this year.
Disposable vaporizers were favored by 52% of those who vaped, compared to 7%.
Tiktok was most often mentioned as a source of online promotion (45%), followed by Instagram (31%) and Snapchat (22%).
Mrs 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 so surrounded by it that you can’t really say ‘I don’t care.’ It’s everywhere.”