E-cigarettes, or vapes, first began to soar to popularity in the late 2000s, because people believed they were a healthier alternative to cigarettes. Since then, vaping has become a global phenomenon, and in the schools of Northern England the craze is at large.
Recent data (uncovered after enquiries by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism) showed a serious North-South divide around underage vaping in England. The data revealed that more than a fifth of teenagers aged 15 in Yorkshire and the Humber were underage vaping, which made them three times more likely to do so than the equivalent age group in London. So, what’s behind this stark contrast?
I’m 17 and I’m a student from Bradford in Yorkshire. I first noticed the explosion of vaping at my school around four years ago. More recently, the hype has centred around shisha pens: a shisha pipe-inspired form of vaping, with a more pronounced flavour and a big cloud of vapour.
Students acquired them for various different reasons – usually to look cool – but also because they’re cheaper than cigarettes (you can pick one up on eBay for £6). And they do seem to be far less dangerous: Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians maintain that vaping is at least 95 percent less harmful than smoking.
It’s illegal for anyone under 18 to buy e-cigarettes or liquids, so teenagers have to be resourceful when they want to get their hands on one. The most popular route is to get it from a rather unofficial and untrustworthy vendor: other kids. In essence, shisha pens have become the black market currency of the Yorkshire schoolyard.
Selling in school is not a new thing. From Pokémon cards to fidget spinners to alien eggs, the schoolyard has always been a bazaar for trend-driven transactions. And shisha pens have become a new object of social currency. “Random people would come up to me and ask to see my vape or ask to take a puff,” said one pupil I spoke to.
But this craze also feels quite different. Due to the increasing popularity and peer pressure of having one, real amounts of cash are changing hands. And older students have hugely benefited from this; capitalising on the frenzy to make tidy profits off desperate younger pupils.
Mo, a student in Year 11, told me he makes hundreds of pounds per week from selling shisha pens and vape liquids. The most he made from selling one shisha pen was £80, and he regularly sells vape liquids for three times what they’re worth in the shops. Clearly the demand is high: “If I don’t sell them, another student will,” he said. “I am not the only seller in my school, there are probably at least six other people who sell shisha pens.”
“It’s just normal,” said Omar, another seller. Like Mo, VICE have changed his name to protect his identity. “It's quite odd if a kid doesn’t have a shisha pen – we all have one.” I asked if he felt guilty selling the pens for inflated prices to the younger kids? “When I was in year nine, older students would sell me vapes and cigarettes,” he said. “I got ripped off then – so it's just normal.”
For teenagers, the law around vapes is ambiguous. It’s illegal for anyone under-18 to buy e-cigarettes or liquids, but it’s not illegal for them to be in possession of a nicotine-free vape pen. As a result, none of the students I spoke to feared getting into trouble with their teachers, because, as one pupil put it, “Selling shisha pens is not the same as selling cigarettes or alcohol – there is no stigma attached to it.” Nevertheless, everyone I spoke with said they didn’t tell their parents that they sold or bought shisha pens.
There still aren’t that many large scale studies on teenagers and vaping, but a 2019 report from Public Health England figures suggested that the amount of kids in the UK using them had doubled in five years. And this is likely to increase as more and more companies sell pens with teenager-focused marketing and liquids based on popular confectionery. Skittles, milkshakes and slushies have all inspired popular vape liquids.
But whether teenagers are actually vaping for an addictive nicotine rush is still something of a grey area. Data from the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project (ITC) youth survey found that the top three motivations for vaping among the 11-18 age group were “give it a try”, “for fun/I like it” and “liking the flavours”. A similar survey over in the USA by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “curiosity” was the biggest reason, and the second was that a friend or family member used them.
It seems a considerable part of the underage vaping craze could simply be the social aspect; the irresistible urge to get involved in something that looks fun and cool and that everyone else seems to be doing. And just as COVID-19 has disrupted the life and schedule of teenagers, it has also disrupted that momentum. Due to the social distancing and class bubbles put in place by schools this year, the students I spoke to have since told me they’ve found it “practically impossible” to sell shisha pens anymore. The hype, it seems, might finally be cooling down.
“Even if we could easily sell shisha pens this year, I don’t think anybody would want to buy them,” said Mo, “it's not the same – it's not like we could all try each other's vapes.”