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Dr Miriam Stoppard: Fewer teens are smoking despite vape increase

National studies in several countries show that smoking among young people continues to decline in recent years, despite the rapid growth in the use of electronic cigarettes.

I believe that adolescents who receive information about good health will always act responsibly, by and large. This is confirmed by national studies in several countries that show that smoking among young people continues to decline in recent years, despite the rapid increase in the use of electronic cigarettes. Health care workers fear that smoking electronic cigarettes may become a gateway for regular smoking or may encourage young people to consider smoking as socially acceptable.

The good news is, it doesn’t.

Researchers have looked at smoking trends among young people as well as their attitudes towards smoking since 1998, focusing particularly on changes between 2011 and 2015 when ­e-cigarettes caught on. To identify whether trends applied only to tobacco or reflected overall changes in substance use in teens, the scientists also analysed trends in alcohol and cannabis use.

Data on smoking was collected on 248,324 secondary school pupils aged around 13 and 15 in England, ­Scotland and Wales, while data on attitudes were available for 162,324 respondents.

Pupils were asked whether they’d ever smoked, if they were regular smokers (at least once a week), and also if they thought it was OK to smoke/try smoking. They were also quizzed about their use of alcohol and cannabis.

The results are very encouraging: from 1998 to 2015, the proportion of smokers aged 13 to 15 years old fell from 60 to 19 percent, while the share of regular smokers dropped from 19 to 5 percent. The teenage perception of smoking also changed over time. Only 27 percent in 2015 believed that it was possible to try a cigarette, in contrast to 70 percent in 1999. The proportion of those who in England said that they smoke all the time has decreased from 36 percent in 2003 to 14 percent in 2014. These abstinence patterns have also been reflected in the use of alcohol and cannabis. Between 1998 and 2015, the share of those who have ever tried cannabis decreased from 29% to 9%, while the share of those who have ever tried alcohol decreased from 79% to 48%.

The researchers say: “Our results provide little evidence that ­renormalisation of smoking occurred during this period. What is more, positive perceptions of smoking attitudes declined at a faster rate following the proliferation of e-cigarettes, suggesting attitudes towards smoking hardened while e-cigarettes were emerging rather than softening, as would be expected if smoking had become renormalised.”

Information is encouraging, but ongoing monitoring of smoking among young people should remain a public health priority.