how worried should we be?


Has vaping become the 2022 equivalent of sneaking a cigarette into the back of bike sheds? Sarah*, an English teacher and behavior manager at a secondary school in the north of England, certainly thinks so.

“More and more it’s becoming a huge problem at my school. We have kids who vape here every day. We suspect it happens every break, every lunch, in every bathroom. Our kids wouldn’t dare never smoke a cigarette in the school bathroom, but they will vape because they know you can’t really smell it and you can’t really prove who it was,” she says.

It’s illegal for children under 18 to buy or use e-cigarettes, but that doesn’t seem to stop young students from getting their hands on them. Sarah says that at her school, the problem is most common in grades 10 and 11, but it also affects students in grades 8 and 9.

And it’s not just happening at his school. In fact, the most recent figures from UK charity Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) found that 11.2% of 11-17 year olds in the UK tried vaping in 2021. It’s less common among those under 16: 6.5 percent of 11-15 year olds have tried vaping while, for 16-17 year olds, this figure rises to 23.2%, and for 18 year olds, it is a just under a third.

Although Ash’s findings suggest that few children and young people vape to look “cool” (only 1.2% of 11-18 year olds cited this as a reason for using e-cigarettes in the Ash survey), Sarah believes that media is responsible for normalizing and valuing the activity – and that this has an impact on students’ habits.

“Socially, there has been a shift, where smoking is seen as a dirty habit and vaping is seen as a desirable alternative,” she explains. “It’s all over social media, especially TikTok. Influencers will vape in a TikTok video like they’re just having a drink. Kids are really exposed to it. They see the people they aspire to be like do it then they start vaping, too.”

More teaching and learning:

Sarah’s observations are echoed by a study published last year by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, which found that 63% of e-cigarette content on TikTok portrays vaping in a positive light. The researchers estimated that a quarter of the people in the videos appear to be under 18 and they say there is an “urgent need” for age restrictions to access these videos.

“Adolescents are susceptible to peer influence, increasingly via social media, and that’s a concern when new evidence suggests vaping has adverse effects on brain, lung and heart development. “said study co-author Dr. Gary Chan.

It doesn’t help that vapes aren’t so subtly marketed to appeal to children and young people, with their bright colors and appealing flavors – think banana, bubblegum, lychee – reminiscent of products found on sweet rays.

Vaping as a gateway?

So how worried should teachers be? Opinions, it seems, are divided on this subject. The World Health Organization released a report last year saying vaping is “harmful” and stricter regulations need to be made to protect children and teens. He also warned that e-cigarettes could serve as a “gateway” to conventional cigarettes.

In a 2020 study, published in the journal Addictive behaviorsresearchers found that 15- to 27-year-olds who had used e-cigarettes were seven times more likely to become smokers a year later than those who had never vaped.

However, Dr. Venetia Leonidaki, a clinical psychologist specializing in addiction, says it is not yet clear whether the “relationship between vaping and smoking is causal or due to joint responsibility, meaning that other factors can make some people more vulnerable to both smoking and smoking.” vaping”.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Ash, agrees that the scale of the problem is not yet critical. She says that while in the US there is ‘hysteria’ about vaping being an ‘epidemic’ among young children, ‘we don’t see that evidence so much in the UK’.

However, for children who vape, what are the health implications?

Vapers work by heating a liquid which becomes a vapor that users can inhale. They usually contain nicotine, the chemical that makes cigarettes addictive, but they don’t contain tobacco, the harmful and carcinogenic element in cigarettes.

The vapor creation mechanism is also part of what makes them safer, in theory, says Arnott: “Smoking is highly addictive because you are inhaling smoke into your lungs; this allows nicotine to be transmitted very quickly. to the brain. It’s not quite the same with e-cigarette vapor. It tends to be slower,” she explains.

Vapes are marketed as a safer alternative to cigarettes and in the UK they are regulated by the Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency.

A review of the evidence to date, commissioned by Public Health England, reported that “best estimates show that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful to health than regular cigarettes”.

But when it comes to the long-term effects vaping might have, especially on younger users, the reality is that we don’t know much about it yet.

“There is moderate evidence that e-cigarettes have an adverse effect on physical health. Their adverse effects primarily impact the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. However, we do not know enough about the magnitude of this risk “, says Leonidaki.

“Adolescence is a time when significant changes occur in the brain and concerns have been raised about how nicotine from e-cigarettes may interfere with brain development. However, more research is needed before we can draw definitive conclusions.

At the same time, a recent study, published in the journal Thoraxfound that exposure to secondary nicotine from vaping is linked to an increased risk of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath in young adults – study participants were on average 17 years old – who do not vape and do not smoke themselves.

The role of schools

Beyond the health risks, there are also the behavioral implications that come with vaping in schools.

Anecdotally, for example, some teachers have reported students asking to use the bathroom in the middle of class when, in fact, they’re jumping in to vape. And there’s another level of concern that’s becoming apparent: vapes that contain illegal substances are ending up in the hands of children and young people.

Recently, there have been cases of children requiring emergency medical treatment in schools after unwittingly vaping fake cannabis oil mixed with spice (a substance containing synthetic cannabinoids, where the effects can be much stronger than natural cannabis – e.g. breathing difficulties, heart palpitations) .

Last May, ambulances were called to a high school in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in two separate incidents, in which pupils had unwittingly sprayed Spice after they thought they were buying THC (the main compound of cannabis) or cannabis oil.

Meanwhile, the recent Testing and research in Greater Manchester into emerging and new drugs report, revealed that area teachers rushed 12-year-old children to hospital after they unknowingly sprayed Spice. It has been reported that these children have been targeted by drug dealers on social media platforms, such as Snapchat.

An Oldham Health Services official told the report: “There has been [an] increase in references indicating the use of the vape. We have seen an increase in A&E attendance indicating ‘unknown vaping substance’ symptoms suggesting they have vaped Spice.”

Arnott also reports cases of young people in the United States vaping vitamin E acetate of which “there are acute effects,” she says. “The vaping of cannabis oil corrupted with vitamin E acetate has been associated with an epidemic of severe lung injury and death in the United States, but is not linked to the vaping of e-cigarettes containing legal nicotine,” she says.

She warns that while “vaping e-cigarettes containing nicotine shouldn’t be confused with vaping spices, vitamin E acetate, or tainted products,” there’s still cause for concern here. .

“Teenagers are risk takers, so they do all kinds of risky things, not just smoking or vaping,” she points out. “Is vaping much worse than anything else? If you vape unknown substances or toxic chemicals, then yes.”

So what can schools do to solve the problem? There is no simple solution, although one teacher we spoke to is considering installing vapor detectors in school toilets.

For Sarah, the problem is eating up huge chunks of staff time and resources. “We regularly search the bags on site, we regularly search the toilets. We search the lockers and, if we find anything, the student is suspended for a fixed period. It takes a lot of staff time because it’s is becoming a growing problem,” she said.

Meanwhile, high school teacher Hetty Steele believes education begins in science classrooms. “Our fellow scientists have a key role to play in vaping device discussions when their agenda covers the dangers of smoking,” she says.

“In our school, there is already a PSHE work program that covers the dangers of smoking and vaping. This could help encourage our young people to think critically about the industry and ask them to think about why the major tobacco companies have bought up brands of e-cigarettes, if vaping is supposed to be a “safer alternative” to smoking.”

Many schools will already incorporate this type of learning into PSHE curricula but, for Arnott, the biggest concern will always be children and young people who smoke conventional cigarettes.

“Vaping in schools is clearly undesirable: it’s not risk-free, it’s age-restricted, and schools need to take strong action to prevent it from happening,” she says.

“However, at the same time, it is important that teachers make it clear to children that smoking is by far the greatest risk to their health. Two-thirds of those who try a single cigarette become daily smokers and half of long-term smokers. – long-term smokers die prematurely after suffering for years from serious diseases and disabilities caused by smoking.”

That’s not to say that teachers should turn a blind eye to students sneaking behind bike sheds – rather than keeping cigarettes out of schools should always be the most pressing concern.

*name has been changed.


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