Stronger vapes rising in popularity, study finds

The rise in vape use was 'most pronounced' among those using disposable vapes and young adults aged 18-24, the university research has found.

The use of high-strength vapes has “increased sharply” in recent years, according to new research.

A significant proportion of users are opting for the highest-strength vapes that they can legally get, academics from University College London (UCL) have said.

The proportion of vapers in England using high-strength vapes rose from 3.8% on average between July 2016 and June 2021 to 33% in January 2024, according to the study, published in the journal Addiction.

It is illegal to sell vapes and e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18 / Credit: Nicholas T Ansell/PA

Researchers examined data on almost 8,000 vapers from July 2016 to January 2024. People were asked about whether or not their e-cigarettes contain nicotine and the strength.

Among the vapers using the highest-strength vapes, the vast majority (93%) used e-cigarettes containing nicotine at the top end of the legal limit – 20mg/ml.

The rise was “most pronounced” among those using disposable vapes and young adults aged 18-24.

Large rises were also seen among current smokers and recent ex-smokers, but not long-term ex-smokers.

There are warnings over the use of the products as recent research has suggested vaping causes similar changes to a person’s DNA as smokers who develop cancer.

An analysis of cheek cell samples taken from vape users, when compared with those from cigarette smokers, revealed both groups shared similar changes to the DNA of cells in their mouth.

Scientists at UCL linked the changes to the future development of lung cancer in smokers, but stipulated their results do not prove e-cigarettes cause cancer.

Researchers said that the rise in higher-strength vapes also coincides with the growing popularity of disposable vapes.

You must be aged 18 or above to buy a e-cigarette in the UK. / Credit: PA

Earlier this year the Government announced that it was to introduce a new tax on vapes in a bid to discourage non-smokers from taking up the habit.

However the researchers cautioned against taxing vaping products according to nicotine strength, as there could be “unintended consequences”.

Academics warned that a duty on higher-strength vapes could discourage smokers from trying to quit with e-cigarettes or prompt them to use lower-strength e-liquids, which could “undermine quitting and perpetuate smoking”.

But they did point out that the proposed vaping products duty may also prevent younger vapers from increasing from experimentation to regular use.

There has been an almost ninefold increase in 11 to 17-year-old’s using disposable vapes over the last two years, according to government figures.

Research from the World Health Organisation has found girls in the UK are smoking and vaping more than boys and that the UK seems to have more of an issue with under-age vaping than many other countries.

Calls have previously made for bans on disposable vapes due to environmental concerns. / Credit:

Girls in the UK are more likely to have used a vape by the age of 15 than the average for all other 44 countries in the study.

Lead author Dr Sarah Jackson, from the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “Our study shows a sharp increase in the use of high-strength nicotine e-liquids in England since 2021.

“Nicotine may be addictive but it is not what causes the great majority of harms from smoking.

“For smokers trying to quit, vaping with higher-strength nicotine is likely to be more effective, as it satisfies cravings more quickly and provides better relief from withdrawal symptoms.

“Taxing higher-strength nicotine products at higher rates will make the most effective way to quit less affordable, which may drive vapers towards lower-strength e-liquids and potentially undermine smoking cessation attempts.

“Of smokers who had quit within the last year and were vaping, we found that around 40% reported using those products which would attract the highest proposed tax rate.”

Senior author Dr Sharon Cox, from the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “Taxing products according to nicotine strength may also result in people using a lower, cheaper strength and vaping more, as a person with nicotine dependence will alter their behaviour to get the required nicotine dose in their system.

“It therefore may increase the amount of liquid used and vapers’ exposure to potential toxicants.”

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) and a co-author of the study, said: “Curbing underage vaping can best be achieved by making all vapes less appealing and increasing the price at point of sale, whatever their nicotine content.

“Those are the policies which will be most effective in stopping children from starting to vape in the first place.

“However, if we are to also ensure that vapes remain an effective quitting tool for adults, smokers should not be discouraged from using higher nicotine content vapes, which are likely to be more effective quitting aids.”

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