How easy did an Inverness teenager find it to buy vapes underage?
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“I’ll have the Peach Ice please,” I told the shop assistant, who plucked the pretty yellow packaging from the glass cabinet and put it on the counter. I held my breath expecting to be asked for ID, but instead she handed me the card reader. I paid my £5.99 and left the shop clutching my first vape.
I’m 17 – a year under the legal age to purchase nicotine products in the UK – and it was as easy as buying some sweets.
As a teenage journalist, I’m fascinated by issues that affect young people in the Highlands. After seeing a rise in my peers using vapes on a daily basis, I was interested to find out how they get their hands on them – most said they simply went into shops themselves.
I put the idea to my editor, who agreed that it was in the public interest to find out if local minors have easy access to these potentially harmful products. We set out some rules for the assignment: no lying about my age, if I was asked I’d tell the truth; no trying to persuade a shop assistant to sell to me; if I was asked for ID I’d simply say I forgot it and leave the shop; and I’d have an adult with me to hand the vapes over to if I was able to buy them.
Over the course of an hour, I visited seven city centre shops, and I managed to buy a vape at three of them. In those three shops, I was not asked any questions about my age or ID.
The vape and the traditional cigarette both carry health risks, but the contrast in advertising restrictions is startling. Inside some of the shops, every inch of the wall was taken up with a different shade of tropical packaging and vivid posters boasting “Two for £10!” promotions, with neon lights lining the shelves to light up the vapes in all their glory.
When traditional cigarettes are now forcibly hidden behind a screen due to strict regulations, with grotesque images of lung damage on the packaging, why is vape marketing so unrestrained?
As I walked back to the office, I realised how ironic it is that vapes were once considered the healthy antidote to cigarettes – now they’ve become the original addiction for teenagers worldwide, with many never having touched a cigarette.
The experimental use of e–cigarettes among 11–17–year–olds is up 50 per cent compared to last year in the UK, according to Action on Smoking and Health. Really, it’s no surprise that teenagers and children are so attracted to a product which comes in a kaleidoscope of colours and over 300 different flavours, including cotton candy, strawberry kiwi, cherry cola, and green gummy bear. These marketing tactics have resulted in an epidemic of child–vapers internationally.
To me, one of the biggest concerns about vapes is that the consumer is often unaware of how much nicotine they are taking in. According to NHS figures in 2021, UK smokers have an average of nine cigarettes–a–day, and probably wouldn’t go through a whole pack on a night out.
However, it is very common to finish a 20mg or 2 per cent vape in one evening, which according to latest research is the estimated equivalent of two–and–a–half packs of cigarettes. Popular vape brand Elf Bar states that their classic Elf Bar 600, which contains 40mg of nicotine, is equivalent to approximately 48 cigarettes.
It is estimated that having a daily intake of “5mg of nicotine per day is proposed as a threshold level that can readily establish and sustain addiction” according to a Bennowitz and Henningfield study in 1994. This would mean, if you are finishing a 20mg or 2 per cent vape (which contains 40mg of nicotine), in under nine days, you may have an addiction to nicotine.
Despite this, vapes and e-cigarettes don’t contain nicotine from tobacco leaves like the traditional cigarette, they contain synthetic nicotine which is created in a lab. While there is less scientific knowledge of synthetic nicotine - and therefore often falls into a ‘grey area’ - it is understood that synthetic nicotine is still a highly addictive substance, and can harm brain development in adolescents.
To make the product even more alluring to adolescents, an Observer investigation in 2022 found that Elf Bar were using social media influencers on TikTok to promote the nicotine product. Many of these promotions on social media were not age restricted, and were not clearly marked as advertisements. Some of these videos gained hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok, which is used by half of eight–to–11–year–olds and three–quarters of 16–to–17–year–olds.
With all of these factors, it is easy to see why vaping is so attractive to young people, and the final blow to this worldwide epidemic is the accessibility of vapes to young people, as shown in Inverness city centre. We are raising a whole generation of nicotine addicts; I refuse to be one of them.
The names of the shops where our journalist bought vapes have been passed on to Police Scotland, and Trading Standards.
Inverness Area Commander, Chief Inspector Judy Hill said: “The law in Scotland is clear that it is illegal for shops and retail premises to sell NVPs (Nicotine Vapour Products) to anyone under 18. It is also illegal for anyone under 18 to buy e–cigarettes or vapes, or for anyone to buy these for people under 18.
“Highland Council Trading Standards team are carrying out vital work to crack down on unscrupulous retailers and we will support that work where necessary to ensure that premises are adhering to the law and effectively applying the ‘Challenge 25’ policy."