Concerns have been raised in the past over the rise of “vaping” – the process of smoking electronic cigarettes – and whether the range of flavours and futuristic look might encourage young people to start smoking.
Research published today in the journal BMJ Open found that although more schoolchildren had tried e-cigarettes – so-called vaping – than conventional tobacco, few became regular users.
The study was welcomed by experts, who called for an end to “moral panic” on e-cigarette experimentation among teenagers.
The team from Cardiff University and Glasgow University used two surveys of schoolchildren from 150 schools in Wales during 2013 and 2014, where 1,601 children aged ten to 11 and 9,055 11- to 16-year-olds were quizzed about their use of e-cigarettes.
They found nearly 6 per cent of ten- to 11-year-olds had tried e-cigarettes, compared with 1.6 per cent who had tried tobacco. Over 12 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds had smoked an e-cigarette.
Vaping was more common than having smoked a conventional cigarette among all age groups, except the 15- to 16-year-olds.
The figures were irrespective of gender, ethnic background, or family affluence, which contrasts with the pattern seen in smoking, suggesting that e-cigarettes may have wider appeal among all sectors of the teenage population, the researchers found.
The proportion of teenagers who had used e-cigarettes, but who had never smoked, rose from 5.3 per cent among ten- to 11-year-olds, to 8 per cent among 15- to 16-year-olds.
But only 1.5 per cent of those aged 11-16 said they used e-cigarettes regularly – defined as at least once a month.
These figures suggest that “e-cigarettes are unlikely to make a major direct contribution to adolescent nicotine addiction at present,” the report said.
E-cigarettes were more likely to appeal to smokers, the study found, as the odds of regular e-cigarette use were 100 times higher among weekly smokers than among non-smokers, and 50 times higher among those who had smoked cannabis.
However, researchers said there was a lack of consensus about what constitutes use of an e-cigarette and longer term evidence was needed.
Prof Linda Bauld, professor of health policy at Stirling University, said: “Teenagers are experimenting with e-cigarettes and these devices can be appealing to young people. However, as is consistent with studies elsewhere, a tiny proportion – here less than a third of 1 per cent – of non-smoking young people goes on to regularly use an e-cigarette.”
She added: “It may be time to move on from the moral panic e-cigarette experimentation in young people elicits amongst some. This study strikes a helpful balance in making clear that it contains no evidence that e-cigarettes are currently acting as a gateway to tobacco smoking for young people in Wales.”
This was echoed by former UK chief drug adviser Prof David Nutt. He said: “My personal view is that e-cigarettes are unlikely to be remotely as harmful as cigarettes. Even if everyone used e-cigarettes the burden of harm would be less than that of current cigarette smoking.”