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Europe takes aim at tackling youth vaping

By JONATHAN POWELL in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-05 09:17

People walk past a vape shop in central London on April 11. One in five British teenagers aged 11-17 have experimented with vaping, with nearly 70 percent favoring disposable vapes as their most frequently used device, according to research from the London-based public health charity Action on Smoking and Health. MAJA SMIEJKOWSKA/REUTERS

Usage a global concern over its addictive potential and insufficient regulation

Editor's note: As countries mull on measures to stave off the rise in vape culture among their youth, China Daily delves into the reasons behind the puff to find out if switching to e-cigarettes is indeed a lesser evil, or a gateway to a world of potentially new, unknown health risks.

Curiosity, the allure of enticing flavors and the convenience of discreet indoor use are among the reasons that attract young people to try out vaping.

But some may not know that addiction lurks in the shadows, as they are seduced by the ease of indulging in a puff anytime, anywhere.

Opinions diverge among young vapers when it comes to assessing the harm of vaping, according to research from the UK lobby and campaign group Action on Smoking and Health, or ASH.

Some ardently believe vaping offers a safer alternative to smoking tobacco and are encouraged by claims of reduced harm when compared to traditional cigarettes.

Others, however, harbor concerns about the comparable levels of harm posed by both practices. But a recurring thread weaves through their stories — the addictive nature of nicotine.

Disposable vapes have become a ubiquitous presence with their sleek design, easy accessibility and affordability, contributing to their surging popularity.

Initially, smoking and vaping were declining among young people aged 18 to 24 in the United Kingdom. However, with the introduction of disposable vapes, the numbers have sharply increased.

According to a survey by ASH this year, one in five teenagers aged 11-17 in the UK have experimented with vaping, with nearly 70 percent favoring disposable vapes as their most frequently used device. Similar patterns are being reported worldwide.

And in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted in its annual National Youth Tobacco Survey that disposable vapes were the most prevalent type of e-cigarette used by young people nationwide.

In a foreword for a UK policy paper, Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said the message from health authorities so far has been clear, "If you smoke, switch to vaping; if you don't smoke, refrain from vaping."

Data from the past five years have shown that, despite the desire of most smokers to quit, nicotine addiction acquired during teenage years holds them captive, he said, and this is why governments are increasingly looking at regulating vapes marketed for children and teenagers.

It is evident from the comments made by experts and from the surveys that vaping has transcended mere trend status, prompting debate about the long-term consequences for individuals, communities and ecosystems.

Zefar, 24, from London, who started vaping a few months ago, told China Daily the habit was a healthier alternative to smoking.

"I'm conscious of the association I've made between relaxing and vaping, so for those that are addicted, it can be a result of this psychological connection between the two," he said.

"It has the potential to be less harmful, however, I've noticed that for most of my friends and colleagues, it's increased the frequency with which they have access. Friends that vape more frequently have begun to present symptoms of long-term health problems, including things like a persistent cough due to irritated or inflamed airways.

"Vapes are also less well-regulated than smoking at the moment, which means mass produced, cheaply made and cheaply sold low-quality vapes have flooded the market, often with moderate and serious design defects, that have a greater impact on the health of their users."

Alex Franco, 23, from Italy, said he started vaping at 16 out of curiosity and because of the "benefits" he gets from it in comparison to smoking traditional tobacco.

"Vaping is definitely less harmful, (but) it's not harmless because, of course, you're putting substances in your body that are toxic anyway," Franco told China Daily. "More than quitting vaping, I'd say that I'm constantly thinking about quitting smoking tobacco."

Maria, a 23-year-old from Ireland, started vaping at 21.

"I think the act of vaping and the variety of flavors are the addictive part."

She told China Daily she believes the health effects of smoking vapes compared to cigarettes are similar.

"I feel like, with the electric cigarettes, you are inhaling a lot of chemicals through the batteries, and whatever is in the e-cigarette, while with the (tobacco) cigarettes you have (many) other chemical types," she said.

Convenience is a recurring theme among those interviewed.

Jennifer L., 23, from Germany, said she started vaping at 21.

"What made it addictive for me was the taste, and the convenience to not have to light a cigarette and smell like tobacco, just taking a puff whenever I desire," she said.

She said she believes vaping is more harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes because of the addiction potential, and considers quitting frequently.

"We are unsure exactly what the ingredients are, and how it will affect us in the long term," she said.

"I have a few friends that would never touch a cigarette, but empty a vape with 6,000 puffs in a day. I also think younger teenagers are more tempted by the flavors. Also it is more harmful for the environment since they are single-use and have a battery inside. They are often not thrown away correctly."

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