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April 20, 2023

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Vaping seems to be everywhere nowadays. It seems you can’t go to a petrol station or walk through a shopping centre without seeing colourful advertising or catching a sickly-sweet scent lingering in the air. While vapes (also known as electronic cigarettes or ‘e-cigarettes’) are meant to be used as a ‘quit tool’ for smokers rather than a new method for non-smokers, one trend has been slowly on the rise in the last few years – youth vaping.

This may seem surprising, but we have received reports across our Safer Schools community that children as young as 8 years old have been found vaping at schools across the UK. Recent statistics from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) reveal that 20.5% of children aged between 11 and 17 tried vaping in 2023, despite the fact that selling vapes to under 18s is illegal. While there are many factors that play into this rise, healthcare officials have warned that social media might be a big influence in young people deciding to vape.

Our online safety experts have taken a deeper look at youth vaping to provide potential risks and helpful tips for parents, carers, and professionals that will help them better understand this issue and how it might impact the young people in their care.

Woman holding a disposable vape

Vaping Fast Facts

  • Vapes come in many shapes and sizes. Some might even look like everyday items, such as pens or flash drives, and vary from disposable to refillable.

  • These ‘electronic cigarettes’ use a heated metal coil within a covering to create inhalable vapour from a liquid form of nicotine called ‘e-liquid’.
  • E-liquid (also called ‘e-juice’ or ‘vape juice’) is a formula composed of nicotine and other chemical ingredients.
  • While it is not without health risks, there is evidence that vaping is an effective way to help smokers quit (when paired with expert face-to-face support, according to the NHS).

  • Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has outlined plans to introduce a new law preventing the sale of cigarettes to children under 14, with further measures targeting youth vaping. The consultation, launched in October 2023, proposes restrictions on child-friendly flavours and brightly coloured packaging as part of an ambitious initiative to create a smoke-free generation.
  • In America, popular vape brand Juul agreed to distribute $462 million (USD) after a lawsuit accused them of targeting under 18s with advertising, failing age verification laws, and allowing the illegal sale of (and exposure to) harmful chemicals that could cause cancer.

  • Advertisements for Elf Bar, the most popular vaping brand in 2023, have been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for using the misleading slogan “recycling for a greener future.” Concerns have been raised about the environmental damage caused by discarded vapes, with a study revealing that 260 million disposable vapes were thrown away in the UK in 2022, contributing significantly to plastic pollution.
illustration of a hand holding a vape

Official guidance from the NHS supports vaping as an effective method to aid smokers in quitting. The NHS does not recommend vaping as a recreational practice for anyone who is not already a smoker and emphasises that it should not be taken up by anyone under the age of 18.

Vaping in the UK

Ever since vapes were first introduced in the UK in 2005, their popularity has increased each year. A 2021 report discovered that thousands of people had already quit smoking with the help of vaping, and that it is a far more effective method than nicotine patches or gum. Additionally, the proportion of young vape users using disposable vapes has significantly increased, reaching 69% in 2023.

A big part of the encouragement towards vaping as an option for smokers looking to quit comes from e-liquid ingredients. While vapes still contain nicotine and other chemicals, they do not contain tobacco or produce tar or carbon monoxide like standard cigarettes. This has led many to claim that vaping is ‘harmless’.

As one healthcare professional said,

“If you’ve got something very dangerous and something much less dangerous, it doesn’t mean it’s harmless.”

Nicotine is still an addictive substance, even in small doses, and is particularly harmful to the brain development of young people under the age of 25.

The UK has strict laws around the amount of nicotine allowed to be in e-liquid, as well as how many puffs a vape can carry. Many countries have banned vapes from being used or sold, such as India, Mexico, and Thailand. Other countries, like Canada, America, and the UK have instead begun to shift their focus towards the prevention of youth vaping, while keeping it legal for anyone over the age of 18 and providing strict regulations and rules.

Why do young people vape?

Leading healthcare professionals (including the VP of policy for the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health, Dr Mike McKean) have warned that youth vaping is a “new epidemic”. In some areas across the UK it is becoming increasingly common, with some students even claiming it is “peculiar not to vape.” There are many reasons why young people might decide to start vaping, including:

As vaping has become a more visible part of popular culture, young people might be more inclined to experiment and try it out. In fact, 65% of young people who have used a vape claimed curiosity was their main reason for trying it. As with other addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco, restrictions and the ‘illegal’ or secretive measures associated with purchasing vapes could feed into their curiosity, especially if they are being told not to do it by adults.
With young people, we know that if their friends are doing something, they are more likely to feel pressure to join in instead of being left out. This means they could start vaping because they want to ‘fit in’ with a certain group at school, because they don’t want to be excluded from an experience, or because they mistakenly believe that “everyone is doing it.”

A recent study by King’s College London found that the colourful design of vape packaging and enticing flavour options were far more appealing to young people than plainer ‘non-branded’ alternatives. Bright colours and playful names like ‘Cherry Cola’ and ‘Blue Raspberry Ice’ might even draw similarities to common shop treats such as slushies and sweets, especially when they are side-by-side in a local shop. This comparison makes vapes more appealing to children and young people as they look ‘fun’ and like a ‘treat’ instead of dangerous or addictive, which is aided by the prominence of vape shops and adverts (despite UK branding regulations).

When compared to cigarette smoking, vaping is more financially viable for people within all income brackets. While the initial cost of a starter kit might be more of an ‘investment’ (between £15-£45), most vape refills and disposable vapes are less expensive than a McDonalds meal and can be used for up to ‘1000 puffs’. To compare, the average price of a single e-liquid or disposable vape is £4 and the average price of a pack of 20 cigarettes is £14. There is no indication of the prices for items that are sold to under 18s illegally. However, most common source young people got their vapes from in 2023 was shops , followed by being given a vape by someone else or through an informal purchase.

For the first time this year, most children wrongly believe that vaping is about the same or more harmful than smoking. This includes nearly half those who have tried vaping, so believing vaping is harmful does not appear to be putting children off trying vaping.
Source: Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

Next to shops, the most common way young people received their vapes was as a gift from a family member or friend. A study by the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) estimates over 3 million UK adults are vape users. If young people are in an environment that has normalised smoking or vaping, they could be more likely to take an interest in it. Some parents or carers have even reported buying e-liquids for the young people in their care to stop them from seeking out black markets or dealers, which could contain unexpected and/or harmful ingredients or percentages of nicotine.

The influence of social media

A growing concern is the influence of social media on youth vaping within the UK. 20% of 11-17 year olds who vape got them from the internet, compared to online cigarette sales to the same age group (2%). While this can include platforms like Amazon and eBay (which don’t always have the same age verifications or restrictions in place and could involve using a parent or carer’s account/credit card details), there are reports of UK-based TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram accounts selling vapes without ID verification and using more ‘unnoticeable’ forms of online payment (like PayPal or bank transfers). Some of these accounts even offer ‘discreet packaging’ or direct delivery to home addresses and schools for those who want to hide the products from parents or carers, and very specifically angle their promotion to underaged users.

Our researchers were unable to find these accounts and posts on social media platforms. Instead, we discovered that searching for ‘vape’ or ‘v@pe’ brings up mostly amusing or encouraging posts that are aimed at young people quitting their vaping habit and highlighting how dangerous it is. Searching for ‘vape shop’ brought up accounts from legitimate stores that warned they would not sell to underage users. However, we also found supportive youth vaping communities that were not age restricted for young people to join and discuss new mechanisms and flavours.

The overwhelming concern about the link between social media and youth vaping comes from the platform algorithms. Despite insisting they prohibit any content that promotes the sale of vaping products, the algorithms mean platforms can recommend accounts, pages, and posts that have not been flagged for moderation, potentially leading to online vape shops or dealers. This can create a persistent online environment for young people that feeds into the desire to vape (or try vaping) in their offline life.

advertisment for vapes on social media


Currently, youth vaping rates in the UK are considered low-level, with a recent study showing the percentage of young people who vape regularly at 8.6% (2022). While this study was conducted in England, it is indicative of the gradual rise in youth vaping across the UK as a whole. Similar rises in Australia and America should be taken as warning to the possible trajectory youth vaping can take, and how it can create a problematic environment that young people might feel expected to be a part of. There are multiple risks that are associated with youth vaping, including:


Most vapes contain nicotine, even in the smallest form (and sometimes even if they claim to be ‘nicotine free’). This can be addictive to a young person, most especially if they have never smoked cigarettes.
Studies have shown that nicotine can have disastrous effects on the healthy development of the adolescent brain (up to the age of 25), specifically parts that control attention, learning, and impulses.

As vaping is still relatively new within the last 20 years, studies are still being done on the potential long-term impact vaping can have physically and mentally, especially on lung health. This means young people could be harming their future health.

Some teachers have noticed an increase in their students “getting edgy” before break times during lessons, while others have struggled to keep students from vaping in the toilets.

Older young people or adults may use a young person’s interest in vaping to convince them into inappropriate, sexual, or illegal behaviour (e.g. county lines) in exchange for vapes.

As vaping mimics the action associated with cigarettes (inhaling smoke/vapour), research suggests it could encourage young people to experiment with other tobacco products.
It is illegal for retail shops in the UK to sell vapes and e-liquid to under 18s. This increases the potential for young people to seek out black market retailers or potential ‘vape dealers’ online, which could expose them to potentially harmful stranger interactions or county lines manipulation.

Red flags

Vaping can be a lot more discrete than smoking, and may be happening without a parent, carer, or teacher noticing it. There are various signs to be aware of with youth vaping, such as:

  • An unexplained cough, wheeze, or shortness of breath.
  • Empty disposable vapes, plastic cartridges, containers, or bottles.
  • Irritable behaviour if unable to go outside or have a break every few hours.
  • Sudden moods swings, frustrations, paranoia, or anxiety.
  • Lingering scents that are fruity or sweet smelling.

Top Tips

If a child or young person in your care is vaping and you are concerned, speak to a healthcare professional.

  • Be observant. Keep an eye on a young person’s behaviour. It’s also helpful to know who they hang out with and if vaping is a regular part of hang outs.
  • Don’t panic. If you discover a young person in your care is vaping or has tried it, it is important to approach them calmly and avoid confrontation.
  • Ask questions. Make sure you get your facts straight by asking questions, such as, “Have you ever tried vaping?” or “What do you like about vaping?”
  • Listen to them. Rather than reacting in anger or disappointment, put your focus on them and give them space to open up to you without judgement.
  • Talk it out. Sharing useful facts and resources with them might help you explain your concerns, while allowing you to talk about negative influences.
  • Use safety settings. Make sure the correct privacy and safety settings are working on your young person’s online accounts, including safety filters.
  • Lead by example. It’s important to outline the difference between those who vape to help quit smoking and those who vape recreationally – including yourself and any other adults they may know. If you vape, do what you can to avoid vaping in front of the young person, and make sure to answer any questions they may have.

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