“Two countries divided by a common language” is a common saying misattributed to George Bernard Shaw. US and UK vocabulary differences are of perennial amusement: elevator, lift; sidewalk, pavement; gas, petrol; soccer, football. Brits say “pants” to mean underwear; Americans say it to mean what we call “trousers.”
A ubiquitous British slang word for a cigarette is also an offensive slur in the States. But if social media is anything to go by, the nicotine taboos run deeper than vocabulary.
Specifically, I’ve noticed regular tweets from US-based accounts which express surprise, amusement or even disgust about older people vaping. Examples include: “Seeing old people vaping will never not be funny to me,” “Anyone else cringe x 10 when they see old people vaping?” and “Old people vaping is just as shocking as babies smoking cigarettes.”
British adults over 55 have a higher vaping rate than the youngest adults.
These are strange tweets indeed, considering the millions of lives, in every adult age group, that have been saved by these products. What could be going on in the US to make some people believe that vaping is only for the young?
In the UK, at any rate, we’ve welcomed vaping with open arms and lungs. Currently, 3.6 million of us vape—over 7 percent of the adult population. Two-thirds are ex-smokers, while under 5 percent have never smoked (the rest combine vaping and smoking, likely on a path to smoking less or quitting). And these numbers emphatically include those of us with a bit more life experience.
The latest survey of e-cigarette use amongst adults by the influential UK anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and health (ASH) finds that “the peak ages for current e-cigarette use in 2021 are among 35-44 year olds (10.1%) followed by 45-54 year olds (8.6%), and then 25-34 year olds (8.1%). The lowest vaping rates by age are 5% for young adults aged 18-24.”
Adults over 55, the oldest age group, have a higher vaping rate (5.4 percent) than the youngest adults.
As for use by minors, ASH reports that more than 88 percent of 11–17-year-olds have never tried or are unaware of e-cigarettes. Only 1.2 percent vape more than weekly. And only 0.7 percent of those who regularly vape were not former smokers.
Looking across the Pond, Brits see a panic-stricken and oppressive environment for vape shops and vapers.
Regulation of e-cigarettes is very liberal in the UK. The National Health Service hosts vape shops in its hospitals, runs a pilot program giving free vapes to smokers in emergency rooms, and recommends e-cigarettes for smokers who find them helpful during pregnancy. Vape shops freely do business in every High Street (translation: Main Street). And vaping products and accompanying liquids are sold in the health aisle in some supermarkets, alongside corn plasters and vitamin pills.
By contrast, looking across the Pond, Brits see a panic-stricken and oppressive environment for vape shops and vapers. Americans are bombarded with media telling them that there is an “epidemic” of youth vaping in their country. This conviction appears so entrenched that the Food and Drug Administration is currently in the process of regulating just about every flavored vaping product out of existence on the basis of “protecting kids.”
In truth, evidence shows that frequent youth use is about as rare in the US as it is in the UK. Yet it seems to serve the anti-vaping organizations’ agenda to prolong the myth—while engaging in bizarre efforts to terrify kids that frequently end up backfiring.
In August, a seismic report by 15 world-renowned public health professors was sharply critical of the kind of public messaging that has dominated in the United States. They called anti-vaping messaging harmful, and worried that “as public health groups, the media, policymakers, and the general public focus on youth vaping, vaping’s potential to help adults quit smoking too often gets lost.”
It is surely this youth-obsessed outcry that prompts those shocked American reactions to older people vaping. And that’s a real shame. Because older smokers deserve the chance to protect their health by switching as much as anyone else. They definitely don’t deserve to be stigmatized and ridiculed for doing so.
From this side of the Atlantic, we’re baffled as to why US authorities, NGOs, media and others seem so willing to perpetuate such a counterproductive public health strategy, wrongly telling their public that youth vaping is the only game in town. We’re lucky enough to have experienced an approach that embraces vaping in a calm, orderly, and government-approved manner—perhaps just the way to attract older smokers without unduly intriguing youth.