Is There A UK Teen Vape Epidemic?

The current push to ban disposable vapes, implement plain packaging for ecig products and restrict the flavours of available e-liquids is rooted in the fear of a teen vape crisis – but is it real? No, according to leading tobacco harm reduction expert Professor Brad Rodu. He highlights how the UK has traditionally told the truth about youth experimentation whereas the USA has whipped up fear and driven interest.

Brad Rodu works as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville where he is a member of the James Graham Brown Cancer Centre and holds an endowed chair in tobacco harm reduction research. As one university puts it: “endowed chairs are established to attract, retain, and provide honour and recognition to outstanding faculty members”.

Professor Rodu’s expertise has been gained from working in tobacco harm reduction research and policy development for the past twenty-seven years. The insight gained into how alternatives to tobacco can help improve the lives of smokers has seen him operate as a Congressional hearing expert witness and presenting at various international forums and conferences.

Professor Rodu has been plain speaking and unambiguous when it comes to the American approach to the magnitude of teen vaping. He has called it “exaggerated” and “a fake crisis”.
In the past he stated that, “health officials typically advance the epidemic narrative by selectively releasing NYTS details before complete data sets are made available to external researchers.”
The American narrative he refers to is one that is staunchly anti-vaping. It contrasts strongly with the attitude in the United Kingdom, where “e-cigarettes have been welcomed and endorsed by the public health establishment as effective quit-smoking, life-saving aids, and there has been a noticeable absence of the U.S.-style crisis scaremongering.”

While the rhetoric about teen vaping has been starkly different on either side of the Atlantic, Professor Rodu points to the evidence that demonstrates actual usage rates are pretty similar.
“Prevalence was the same in both countries in 2014, and was higher in the UK over the next three years.  Prevalence spiked in the U.S. in 2018 and 2019, but by 2020 both countries had similar rates.”

Rodu continues: “The biggest difference being how American and British authorities, and the media, have responded. British authorities have consistently spoken the truth about vaping since 2011, and today Britain’s Department of Health helps smokers switch from combustibles to vapour. Their American counterparts, however, have been on a crusade to eliminate these vastly safer cigarette substitutes, even falsely suggesting that nicotine in e-cigarettes will cause irreversible brain damage in children. Tobacco prohibitionists appear to be ignorant of the fact that their warnings and advertisements might actually spark the ‘epidemic’.”
In light of the small increase in the actual number of British teens vaping – some refer to the rate as having doubled, but the reality is that it has been an increase from 4.1% to 7% of almost exclusively teen smokers – the UK Government is being pressed to act.

People wanting politicians to crack down and ban disposables and e-liquid flavours point to the potential for brain damage to occur.
Rodu responds to this: “There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the claim that nicotine causes harm to human brain development, so it is astounding that federal officials traffic in this false narrative.”
“This nonsense is an affront to 34 million adult current smokers and 55 million former smokers in the U.S., virtually all of whom started when they were teenagers.  There is no evidence that their brain development was harmed, a fact that was specifically acknowledged by a prestigious nicotine researcher Dr Neal Benowitz at an international tobacco meeting.”

What is the UK Government doing?
With one Conservative MP currently trying to push through her Private Members’ Bill, titled the Disposable Electronic Cigarettes (Prohibition of Sale) Bill, and various bodies calling for plain packaging of vaping products and the banning of all flavours of e-liquid other than tobacco, the government has appealed for experts, organisations and individuals to contribute “information on a range of themes about children and vaping (using an e-cigarette) to inform evidence-based policy decisions.”
In particular, the government is looking for the facts about how to ensure shops don’t illegally sell to underage purchasers, how the look of the packaging might encourage teens to buy the products, how marketing influences teen decisions and if it is relevant to them buying disposable vapes, if social media is playing a role to encourage youth trial and purchase decisions, how educational programmes might dissuade teens from taking up vaping, the impact of discarded disposable ecigs on the environment, and how the vape market current operates as a whole.

On one hand, this could be seen as a negative step. For a government that was roundly supportive of vaping, accepting the current fears about teen vaping that Rodu called “exaggerated” and “a fake crisis” indicates a willingness to change approach for political expediency – they will be balancing the action they take against possibly gaining or losing votes at the next general election.

On the other hand, it does continue to demonstrate an understanding of the facts to date, stating: “Vaping is an important tool to help the government achieve its ambition for England to be smokefree by 2030. This is because vaping is one of the most effective ways to help people quit smoking.”

The government even points to the Nicotine vaping in England report and the ongoing Cochrane systematic review, which both highlight the relative safety of vaping when compared to smoking and the “‘high certainty’ that vapes [are] more effective than nicotine replacement therapy.”
Ultimately, what happens next will rely as much on the political environment over the next six months as much as the hard evidence put in front of ministers. Those who are committed to the promotion of vaping as a quit tool for current adult smokers will be keen that the UK doesn’t follow the United States down the road of scaremongering and fear.