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Two thirds of year 10 pupils who vape daily show signs of nicotine dependency

Published: 6 September 2023.

A snapshot survey of pupils in years 7 and 10 from a small sample of Welsh secondary schools has found that the proportion of year 10 pupils using vapes every day is around nine to 10 per cent.  Among these daily vapers around two thirds showed signs of moderate or high dependency to nicotine using a validated measure.

The impact of this dependency is being seen by schools who are also reporting increasing problems with vape use and problem behaviours as a result. Headteachers have reported that vape use has become a growing issue over the last two years leading to them having to monitor specific areas of their site for vaping (for example toilets). School leaders also reported an increase in school exclusions relating to vaping in the past academic year.

In August, Public Health Wales announced it had convened an Incident Response Group (IRG) following increasing reports of vaping among pupils from those working with children and young people in Wales. The IRG intends to develop understanding of the issue of vaping among young people, identify the causes, and establish recommendations to mitigate the potential harms. In September, Public Health Wales will publish information and guidance on vaping for schools following a request from Welsh Government. This will detail what vaping devices are, their known health risks, the current law surrounding their use, and how schools can respond to vape use among learners. This document will also give information about how schools may wish to shape internal policies around vaping, and where to seek further support.

The IRG will use the format of an Incident Management Team, which Public Health Wales more frequently calls to organise the containment of incidents of communicable disease. Stakeholders felt this growing issue required the same degree of urgent response as this is a rapidly changing phenomenon with potential harms to public health. The IRG is a multi-agency group made up of experts from a variety of relevant fields including Welsh Government, Public Health Wales, health boards, stop smoking service providers, ASH Cymru, directors of public protection Wales, NHS paediatric and respiratory specialists and representatives from schools. In October, the IRG will publish its own report setting out what the evidence tells us about vaping among children and young people in Wales and what measures are most likely to be effective in addressing the rise in vaping and associated harms.

While switching to vapes from smoking has a range of health benefits for smokers there is no benefit to non smokers, particularly children and young people. For this reason it is already illegal to sell vapes to people under 18 years of age. Vaping puts young people at risk of nicotine addiction, a dependency that impacts their education, behaviour and their daily life. Although it is not yet possible to fully determine the health impacts over the course of a lifetime, IRG members are concerned longer term health impacts may be identified later by which time many young people may have already developed a life-long habit, despite being members of a demographic who would otherwise never have used tobacco products.

Trading Standards are already aware that there are many illegal products available in shops that don’t comply with current safety regulations. These products may put young people at additional risk from unknown, possibly more harmful, contaminants, and gaining an understanding of what vaping products children are using and how they are acquiring them is one of the IRG’s central aims.

Dr Julie Bishop, Director of Health Improvement at Public Health Wales, said: “The vaping industry has expanded rapidly over the last decade. Products are consistently marketed in ways that younger people find appealing with brightly-coloured packaging, modern designs, and flavours that mimic confectionary products. As a new and rapidly evolving product, the risks of vaping are not yet fully understood but it is already clear they are of no benefit to non-smokers and young people.

“Evidence shows there has been a marked increase in reports of regular and dependent vaping among secondary school age children, and this is affecting their ability to learn. The Incident Response Group will continue to gather information relating to the issue in Wales and offer leadership in mitigating further harms to public health.”