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Durham University News

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Young people do not see e-cigarettes as smoking

(16 May 2016)

Young people do not see e-cigarettes as a form of smoking and are more interested in the wide range of flavours and performing tricks with the vapour, according to new research.

A study led by Fiona Measham, a Professor of Criminology in the School of Applied Social Sciences, argues that public health professionals and policy makers should consider how young people’s motivations for e-cigarette use differ from adults, to help tailor their public health messages.

The study, which explored trends in smoking-related attitudes and behaviours amongst young people (aged 14-25), found that only 28 per cent of participants who used e-cigarettes said they did so to help them stop smoking. Instead, the majority of young people were attracted by the range of flavours and, in particular teenage boys, the ability to perform tricks with the vapour.

Professor Measham explains: “Our study suggests that vaping is establishing itself as a new phenomenon, independent of traditional smoking.

“Adults are bogged down by the similarities between smoking and vaping where as young people see them as different activities and do not associate vaping with the idea of a being a smoker or non-smoker. The young people we spoke with did not relate to the adult motivations ascribed to e-cigarettes, such as smoking cessation and nicotine consumption.”

Although there are indications of growing interest in e-cigarettes among young people, this does not mean that smoking is becoming more accepted as it was in the past – a process known as renormalisation - because of the difference in attitudes between vaping and smoking tobacco, say the researchers.

Professor Measham said that she hoped a better understanding of the attraction of e-cigarettes to young people could enable better communication around risks as well as informing regulation and harm reduction. 

The study found that whilst most young people identified traditional cigarettes as being very harmful, the same was not true when it came to e-cigarettes. Young people were less clear on whether e-cigarettes were harmful, and also highlighted positives to their use such as being less harmful than tobacco smoking and producing more pleasant smelling vapours.

Young people’s decision-making around the use of e-cigarettes involves personal, social and cultural factors. The research team argue that understanding this could help better inform regulation and communications with young people around e-cigarette use.

Professor Measham said: “In this age group, it appeared that vaping was less about an association with nicotine use and more to do with personal choice, enhanced peer group status and socialising with friends.

“So, whilst public health professionals, policy makers and academics are debating about whether e-cigarettes may help reduce tobacco smoking or entice young people into nicotine addiction, and potentially cigarette smoking, when we actually listen to young people the majority of them are not interested in either of these reasons for vaping.”

Gavin Turnbull, Research Associate on the project commented that “Whilst the majority of young e-cigarette users are currently smokers, we need to understand vaping as a new and different phenomenon to cigarettes."

The six-month action research project, which was funded by Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council, was undertaken in North West England. The aim was to understand whether e-cigarettes are contributing to an increased acceptability, or ‘renormalisation’ of smoking amongst young people, in order to inform local health service provision.

The study is published in the journal Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy.

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