Fighting for attention: How to educate youth about the dangers of e-cigarettes?

Posted in: Children and Youth

Written by Dr Sophie Braznell, Research Co-ordinator in the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath

The risks of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are fiercely debated. Nonetheless, it is clear e-cigarettes are not without risk, especially for children and young adults. In addition to nicotine addiction and adverse effects on oral, respiratory and cardiovascular health, youths who vape are at risk of harming their brain’s development and poor mental health including depression and suicidality. Despite this, increasing numbers of them are using e-cigarettes. So, the question is: how do you get the attention of students away from the industry’s alluring marketing gimmicks and on to the risks of vaping?

The tobacco and e-cigarette industries claim they do not target youth, while simultaneously marketing e-cigarettes in the shape of toys and in a variety of sweet flavours, as shown above.

TCRG has been approached by local schools across Bath and Somerset who were searching for someone to speak to key stage 3 and 4 students (between the ages of 11 and 16) about the risks of e-cigarettes. Having focused my research on tobacco industry harm reduction science, the core of which assesses the industry’s newer nicotine and tobacco products, I was well suited to deliver such sessions.

In my experience, some topics garner more attention from students than others. A talk on the risks of e-cigarettes would not be complete without covering the risks to health. However, I have found this topic does not resonate much amongst the students. This aligns with the most recent data from ASH, which suggested believing e-cigarettes are harmful does not put children off trying vaping.

The parts of my talk which typically result in the most engagement and reaction are the contents of so-called “vapour”, combatting the common misconception that e-cigarette emissions are mostly water; the amount of nicotine in e-cigarettes compared to cigarettes; the adverse effects of e-cigarettes on mental health; and the negative impact of e-cigarette manufacturing and disposal on the environment. 

At the end of the session I cover the marketing tactics used to target children and young adults. We play a game in which the students must spot breeches of UK advertising rules on youth-centred marketing in real e-cigarette advertisements. This offers some fun in an otherwise very serious session, but more importantly, it highlights a key take home message: don’t fall for the tactics of huge multi-national corporations that want to make money off your addiction.

Afterwards, I get various responses from stunned silence to intelligent questions, and once an audacious but humorous request for free samples. In my most recent school visit, some students even chose to bin their e-cigarettes on their way out from the assembly hall. Hopefully, not just because they were empty! 

No matter where you sit in the ongoing e-cigarette debate, we can all agree children should not be vaping. It is a stimulating, yet alarming experience to talk to such brilliant students at these schools, which like many across the UK are witnessing the rise in youth vaping. Multiple teachers have told me that they estimate as many as 50% of students in some year groups are vaping. These teachers have felt at times ill-equipped to combat the common misconceptions held by students and adequately address vaping at their schools. It is clear better support is urgently needed for schools and teachers attempting to tackle youth vaping.


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Posted in: Children and Youth