In the pub, on the school toilet and even in the classroom: young people seem to vape en masse, in other words: to smoke electronic cigarettes. Disposable vapes with flavors are especially popular. Although they may not be sold to minors, it is a breeze to get them, according to research by NOS Stories. And it is becoming increasingly clear that vapes and precisely those popular disposable vapes are more harmful than first thought.
As early as 2019, research by the Trimbos Institute showed that young people more often opt for e-cigarettes than for regular cigarettes. In 2017, 27.5 percent of students aged 12 to 16 had ever used an e-cigarette; 44 percent of MBO and HBO students between the ages of 16 and 18. It seems those numbers have continued to rise and users are getting younger and younger.
NOS Stories investigated how harmful vapes are, and how it is possible that minors can also easily obtain such an e-cigarette. Thousands of young people shared their experiences:
Vaping in the school toilet
About 6000 minors completed an online questionnaire from NOS Stories. More than 3000 of them said they have vaped or do so regularly. Striking: 240 of those young people were 12 years and younger.
“Although we don’t have the data yet, we also hear and see the signs that this is increasing,” says Trimbos doctor Esther Croes. “We are concerned about that.” One of those signs is vape use at school. For example, a primary school in Helmond sounded the alarm last month about vapes in group 7.
Of the 642 secondary schools in the Netherlands that received an online questionnaire from the NOS, 120 responded; 80 schools said they do indeed vape. In at least 50 schools, this actually happened in the school: in the toilets, in the hallway, even in the classroom.
One teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “These vapes don’t look like cigarettes with their colors, especially older teachers believe it when students say it’s a highlighter.” Fifteen teachers and/or school leaders also indicate that it affects young people in the classroom. “They are nauseous or absent,” one writes. Other signals: “less concentrated”, “drowsy”, and in a few cases: “stuffy.
It often happens in the toilets at school, says Anne, one of the youngsters. She herself uses the e-cigarette on a daily basis and she also sees many other students vaping regularly. “Someone has been caught. It is then taken and they call your parents, nothing else happens.” “We regularly receive calls from school leaders and youth workers who are involved and have concerns,” says doctor-epidemiologist Esther Croes.
For a long time, vaping was seen as less unhealthy than smoking. But new research shows that vaping is no less harmful, especially for young people. For example, many disposable vapes contain nicotine. “And nicotine is very addictive, especially for young people. It disrupts the brain and that leads to a less good concentration,” says Croes. “Vapes also contain carcinogens and heavy metals.”
Almost no control
Nevertheless, despite the ban on sale to minors, teenagers can get their hands on it a lot easier than cigarettes. They buy them through web shops and social media. With one click on the button that confirms that the buyer is 18 years or older, without an ID check, a vape via an online store can still be on the mat on the same day.
The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority confirms that there is almost no control over this, which, in addition to many other tasks, must also enforce the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. “We can only enforce if we see with our own eyes that a vape is being sold to a minor,” said spokesman Lex Benden. That is why the Ministry of Health is working on a law that should ban the total online sale of tobacco.
Websites like AliExpress also sell e-cigarettes. Many young people order their vapes there, because they are cheaper there. Many young people indicate that they do not know exactly where they come from, because they have received them via the via. Since vapes often come from outside the EU, there is no control over them. They often contain much more nicotine than certified vapes and can be downright dangerous.