Vaping in Schools: A guide to the problem & solving it

Youth vaping causes concerns within schools

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There has been a large rise in the numbers of young people vaping over recent years which has had a huge impact on secondary schools, in particular. The schools are having to deal with a public health issue that has led to anti-social behaviour and disruption to learning among their students.

In the UK the selling of vaping devices or e-cigarettes to anyone aged under 18, and buying vaping products for anyone under 18, are prohibited. However, a survey of teachers, and evidence collected by MPs, suggests that vape products are being purchased and consumed by a large and growing number of younger people. Teachers and public health professionals believe that marketing is significantly contributing to the issue; as vapes with sweet flavours are designed to appeal to young audiences.

The Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, speaking to MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee in February, when he gave evidence for their inquiry into prevention in health and social care said: “Marketing vaping, an addictive product which has unknown consequences on developing minds, to children, is utterly unacceptable and yet is happening. We know it is happening as, although from a low base, the rates of vaping have doubled in the past couple of years.”

The evidence for the growth of vaping among young people

Research by the public health charity, ASH, found that in March/April 2023 the proportion of 11-17 years olds experimenting with vaping had grown by 50% year on year, from one in thirteen to one in nine. In 2023 ASH found that 20.5% of children had tried vaping, up from 15.8% in 2022 and 13.9% in 2020. Most had only vaped once or twice (11.6%), while 7.6% were currently vaping (3.9% less than once a week, 3.6% more than once a week) while the rest (1.3% in 2023) said they no longer vape.

The UK’s Office of National Statistics published Adult smoking habits in the UK: 2022 in September which showed that the total proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 years who were daily or occasional vapers in 2022 increased to 15.5% compared with 11.1% in 2021.

Increases in e-cigarette usage were particularly noticeable among younger women with the proportion of women aged 16 to 24 years who were daily e-cigarette users in 2022 climbing to 6.7% compared with 1.9% in 2021. This is the highest proportion of daily e-cigarette usage in this age group for females since data collection began in 2014.

Women aged 16 to 24 years who were occasional e-cigarette users also increased in 2022 to 12.2%, compared with 7.1% in 2021. Occasional e-cigarette use in younger males aged 16 to 24 years increased to 8.7% in 2022 compared with 7.9% in 2021, although this increase was not statistically significant.

ASH stated in February youth vaping had grown rapidly and the fastest growth has been in the new single use or disposable e-cigarettes which have come on to the market in the last few years and are cheap and widely available. ASH research from March 2022 found that disposable vapes are now the most used product among young people who currently vape, up more than 7-fold from 7% in 2020 and 8% in 2021, to 52% in 2022.

Meanwhile the latest research by NHS Digital, published in September 2022, Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England showed that e-cigarette use had risen to 9%, up from 6% in 2018 in secondary school pupils in England in years 7 to 11. The survey of pupils mainly aged between 11 and 15 conducted between September 2021 and February 2022 also found that 1 in 5 (21%) of 15-year-old girls were classified as current e-cigarette users.

Problems schools face when vaping occurs

A survey of 4000 teachers in the UK conducted for the teachers’ union, the NASUWT, which was published in October found 85% of teachers believe vaping is a problem on school premises.

Over half (54%) of teachers reported that some pupils repeatedly leave lessons in order to vape, while a third (35%) report that some pupils are struggling to concentrate in lessons due to the effects of nicotine.

75% of teachers stated that vaping has increased in schools over the past year—on average, they said the problem has grown by 25%—but only 20% believed that their schools had effective policies to deal with vaping. While most respondents were teachers in secondary schools, some primary teachers reported pupils as young as ten bringing vapes into school.

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of NASUWT, “This impact on concentration and learning is unacceptable, and lies at the hands of the Government. Despite a growing body of evidence, it has failed to address the public health emergency of vaping amongst children and young people,”

Schools generally find that students vape in the toilets and it can become an increasing challenge to manage this and to track down those responsible successfully. When a number of children gather to vape, schools have found that this can lead to bad behaviour and toilets can get damaged. Students can also cause problems if they choose to hide the vapes when teachers try and track them down. Separately, other students can become intimidated and unwilling to use the toilets because of those vaping. This was the experience of both St Joseph’s College in Stoke-on-Trent, as well as Baxter College in Kidderminster.

Meanwhile the school inspectorate, Ofsted, has identified youth vaping, and the associated poor behaviour, in some of its reports. Publicity surrounding the inspections can potentially damage the reputation of schools and colleges. Ofsted identified vaping as among the problems with at least one further education college in the south of England and a secondary school in northern England that has led to them receiving ratings of inadequate and requires improvement respectively.

While vaping is accepted to be safer than smoking and is recommended as a tool to quit the habit all health professionals are clear. If you have not smoked, don’t vape and vaping is unsuitable for young people.

Recently a 12-year-old from Belfast who was hospitalised warned against the dangers of becoming addicted to vaping. Sarah Griffin, an asthma sufferer, spent 4 days in a medically-induced coma in September when her lung collapsed.

Responding to the rise in vaping within schools

In September 2022, the public health charity, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), published guidance for schools to help them manage the vaping problem. This was available alongside more extensive ASH youth vaping resources for local authorities, schools and parents.

The guidance for schools was developed with advice from teachers with expertise in safeguarding and health education, and is designed to support the development and implementation of evidence-based school policies. It was particularly aimed at designated safeguarding leads and PSHE teachers within secondary schools.

Smokefree Sheffield with support from ASH and local authorities across Yorkshire and Humber, have produced a comprehensive set of resources for schools to use, which the charity has shared online to be used nationally. This includes a short, animated film to start discussions in PSHE lessons, form times and assemblies; a classroom presentation to go with this; posters and a leaflet for parents and carers.

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of ASH, said its guidance “is designed as a guide to empower schools with the information they need to develop their policies.

“We understand that it can be difficult for schools to know what to do about vaping, particularly when online promotion on social media sites like TikTok, is fuelling its use.”

Public health England has also produced resources to support teachers to talk to students about vaping under its Better Health-Every Mind Matters Campaign.

A new challenge for schools: illicit vapes

Research conducted by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) found that illegal vapes are the products Trading Standards professionals are most concerned about on the UK’s high streets. A CTSI statement on vaping said Trading Standards has seen a rise in illicit sales of vaping products by specialist vape shops, convenience stores and corner shops over the past year, with more than 1.4 tonnes of illegal vapes seized in the last six months of 2022 in the North East of England alone.

Vapes and e-cigarettes are regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.  The regulations require that they have tanks to a capacity of no more than 2ml; a nicotine strength of no more than 20mg/ml; and their labels display manufacturer details and health warnings. Refill containers are restricted to a maximum capacity of 10ml, certain ingredients including colourings, caffeine and taurine are banned, and nicotine-containing products or their packaging must be child-resistant and tamper-evident.

However, many of the devices seized by Trading Standards teams breach these rules, and there are concerns that some may be designed specifically to appeal to children and young people, with packaging and flavours copying popular confectionery brands such as Skittles.

A separate investigation by the BBC, which commissioned laboratories to analyse confiscated vapes from Ecl-ips customer, Baxter College, found most of them had high levels of lead, nickel and chromium.  The levels were above the legal minimum and would be harmful to young people.

Government Action on Youth Vaping

In April, after the growing clamour for action from ASH and other public bodies, the government launched a consultation to help it develop policy and priorities for tackling youth vaping. It also announced more funding to create a specialised national ‘flying squad’ to enforce the rules on vaping and tackle illicit vapes and underage sales.

The government in May also pledged to close a loophole that allowed the vaping industry to give free samples of vapes to children in England and said dedicated school police liaison officers would be deployed to keep illegal vapes out of schools

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said then: “I am deeply concerned about the sharp rise in kids vaping and shocked by reports of illicit vapes containing lead getting into the hands of school children.”

Then in October the government launched a further consultation on its detailed proposals on youth vaping. These proposals form part of its wider plans to ultimately eliminate smoking and were also its response into an earlier independent review into this that reported in 2022. The Khan Review recommended the use of vaping as a tool for adults to quit smoking but also that a number of actions should be taken to reduce the appeal of vapes for young people.

The government’s proposals include plans to:

  • restrict vape flavours
  • regulate vape packaging and product presentation
  • regulate point of sale displays
  • restrict the sale of disposable vapes
  • introduce an age restriction for non-nicotine vapes
  • explore further restrictions for other nicotine consumer products such as nicotine pouches
  • prevent the industry giving out free samples of vapes to children

Helping to solve the problem of vaping in schools

While schools and colleges may be hoping that government action to tighten up and enforce the law will help to curb underage vaping in the future, they need to understand the scale of the problem they have and take steps to address it now.

Customers of Ecl-ips, such as Baxter College and St Joseph’s College, have shown that having robust policies and trained staff are important. Having a tool to provide more data and support staff can also make a huge difference.

This is how the HALO Smart Sensor can help. Charlotte Slattery, Deputy Headteacher at St Joseph’s College, admitted that, ““I had dithered about it for over 12 months due to the cost but it has been transformational for us.”

She added, ““Being able to identify students who are vaping has also allowed us to have much more meaningful conversations with our young people about the dangers of vaping and garner support from parents.  This is helping us to have open dialogue with students that we hope will become more of a proactive message, in time, rather than a reactive one.”

Matthew Carpenter, Principle at Baxter College said, “It has transformed the amount of antisocial behaviour in toilets, children are more confident in going to the toilets. It has also reduced the number of students asking to go to the toilet during lessons”.

Getting vape detection in schools right

There are a number of devices that are being marketed as vape detectors but we advise schools to look at the product descriptions carefully. Schools need to consider what is actually being monitored; cybersecurity and your IT networks; the pricing, as some vape detectors require a subscription; and be certain the devices will withstand the school environment.

The HALO Smart Sensor uses a dynamic vape detection algorithm to automatically learn the environment and alert when vaping is detected. The HALO is also the only product that can alert and differentiate between vaping, vaping with THC, and intentionally masking vaping behaviour, by using aerosols to cover up vaping. Unlike many other vape detectors, the HALO is a standalone device so once you have bought and installed it you are not obliged to have any ongoing costs.

If students become suspicious of a new sensor within a toilet block there is a potential that they will become a target for the students to tamper with or they may try and remove the vape detector. The HALO will detect if it is being interfered with and a notification will be sent seconds after the detection. Additionally, students should not be able to damage the device significantly because it has an IK 10 rating, making it vandal resistant. As the HALO is a POE device it is directly connected into your network and the same cabling is used to provide power, which makes it more robust and means schools are not reliant on a Wi-Fi connection.

The HALO has the ability to detect abnormal noise levels, which could also suggest aggression between students. When an incident occurs like this it is important that school leaders get notifications quickly. When the smart sensor is installed, it will literally learn what the normal sound levels are within its environments and then will send alerts when a threshold above normal is detected for a specified length of time. Ecl-ips can support you to ensure that your thresholds for this are correct and false alerts are stopped.

The HALO can be pre-staged before it is delivered so it will be ready to send email alerts to the appropriate staff more quickly. Once the device is plugged in it will take 24 hours for the sensors to self-calibrate.

Tackling vaping in schools

There is no doubt there is a huge problem in youth vaping which has adversely impacted schools. While changes in the law are planned that will help to address the wider issue schools need to respond now to support their students. A vape detector, along with a robust approach to dealing with perpetrators and education of young people, can help. Contact us to find out more.

Useful Links

Ecl-ips Articles

St Joseph’s convinced of the value of vape detection

12-year-old girl warns other children against vaping

Figures show increasing numbers of young people vaping

Vape Detection in schools: Ensure you get an accurate sensor

Government responds to calls to curb young people vaping

Student Behaviour Transformed

Further Resources

Rise in vaping in schools is failure of Government

ASH resources on youth vaping

ASH guidance on developing school policies on vaping