A few weeks ago, a TikTok video by Gogglebox star George Baggs was banned for breaking advertising rules. The video, which featured a shirtless Baggs dressing for the day and choosing a brightly coloured vape, included him smirking and saying: “Matching my outfit with my new HQD v@pe.”
Another similar vape-toting video was also pulled that featured a young man choosing a blueberry Elf Bar vape for breakfast, followed by a passionfruit vape for lunch. And now Rishi Sunak has announced a crackdown on vape advertising targeted at children, just days after he appeared on Good Morning Britain to express concern about his own daughters potentially being targeted by vape marketing.
My daughters are 10 and 12, and I don’t want the way vapes are marketed, promoted and sold to be attractive to them.
That’s why I am launching a new crackdown today to protect children and go after the rogue companies and online crooks who are putting vapes into their hands.
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) May 30, 2023
Ministers have pledged to close a loophole allowing retailers to give free samples of vapes to children in England – as well as announcing a review into banning retailers selling “nicotine-free” vapes to under-18s, and review of the rules on issuing fines to shops that illegally sell vapes to children.
This news is good and welcome, but what’s missing? A focus on TikTok: which is a hotbed of young people teaching kids to vape.
I’m mum to two children – Alex, 14, and Adriana, nine. A few months ago, I caught my son vaping at home in his bedroom. I hit the roof, furious at him risking his health and breathing chemicals into his lungs.
Why had he done this? Neither his dad nor I smoke. We’ve always warned him about the dangers.
He shrugged and responded with: “Everyone does it. And it’s healthier than smoking.” After much discussion, we threw it away and he swore he wouldn’t do it again. But I had to wonder: where was he getting the inspiration from? And where was he reading that vapes were safe?
Vape companies claim that vaping is the healthy alternative to smoking cigarettes and – it’s true – vapes are there to help existing smokers quit. But that is not what’s happening in reality with young teens.
They are not old smokers who want to ditch a 30-year habit – these are young people with fresh undamaged lungs, trying vaping for the first time. NHS figures from 2021 showed that 9 per cent of 11-15-year-olds used e-cigarettes, up from 6 per cent in 2018.
In their case, vaping is not a way out of smoking. It’s a way in.
The breathing it in, the “cool” strut as they vape alongside their friends, the James Dean-style wince as a plume of vapour flies up in front of their faces. These aren’t products to quit smoking. I’d argue they are a gateway to actually smoking cigarettes – or even marijuana.
But while vape adverts are not on television, they seem to be slipping through the net on TikTok.
Wily users of TikTok aren’t stupid. They use the @ sign instead of the letter a in the word “vape” to get around censorship.
My eldest is an avid TikTok user, as are millions of kids his age. While parents think these kids are merely watching funny videos, we’re being hoodwinked. They’re actually being encouraged to vape, with “influencers” doing the advertising. It reminds me of the parents who had no idea their sons were being indoctrinated into a world of misogyny by Andrew Tate.
Recently, I appeared on GB News to talk to the director general of the Vaping Industry Association. I argued that vapes are being aimed at teens with their bright-coloured packages and child-friendly flavours.
He argued back that while he agreed vapes shouldn’t be on social media, that packaging does have health warnings and that “all of the reports from British Public Health England all talk about how vaping is at least 95 per cent less harmful”, and how “we haven’t had a single case of anybody in the world dying from vaping nicotine e-liquid. That’s a fact.”
But I disagree. We just haven’t seen it play out, yet.
And while I support people trying to quit smoking with vapes, that is where it should end. Vapes, like any other medicine to try and help people quit a habit, should be in a plain white medical package. Instead, we have a vast array of vapes in all the colours of the rainbow, with flavours that only a 15-year-old would want (which 49-year-old ex-smoker wants bubblegum, for goodness sake?)
As this landmark decision is made, I feel relief at last. The government crackdown on advertisers may be a tiny step but it is, at least, a step.
We all need to do our part as parents to check which videos our kids are watching on social media. You may think they’re indulging in funny memes or make-up tutorials. But they may actually be learning how to vape.