Some schools in the United Kingdom have begun using CCTV and sensors in an attempt to detect and stop student vaping, which they say is an increasing problem. They follow many schools in the United States and elsewhere that have taken such measures.
This development, in a country that has broadly welcomed vaping as tobacco harm reduction, comes months after the government’s school behavior advisor, Tom Bennett, called vaping “a huge health hazard and an “enormous distraction” in schools, urging them to confiscate vapes and punish vaping with “zero exceptions.”
The UK’s legal age to purchase vapes is 18. A 2022 survey from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) found that “current” vaping among British children aged 11-17, including occasional use, had risen to 7 percent—up from 4 percent in 2020.
However, the report noted that “use among never smokers remains low and mostly experimental.” Of that group, only 0.5 percent were vaping more than once a week. And 2022 was the first year in which ASH estimated that more children in this age group had ever tried a vape than had tried a cigarette.
Baxter College in Kidderminster is one of the first English schools to install sensors in toilet blocks and CCTV outside, at a cost of £4,000. Headteacher Mathew Carpenter called vaping in minors “an issue nationally.”
He told the BBC that the new tech, which includes sensors that send an alert to school management if they detect vapor, has been a success: “We’ve noticed a real reduction, 16 cases or alerts on the first day, down to one or two a week.”
Bates described schools’ adoption of such tactics as “a full-blown moral panic adorned with the usual pointless and counterproductive overreactions.”
But the extent to which students have entirely stopped vaping, as opposed to finding ways to get around the surveillance, is unknown.
Clive Bates, a former director of ASH, told Filter that he understood why parents and teachers were concerned, “given the history of smoking and the alarmist misinformation that circulates about vaping.” But he described schools’ adoption of such tactics as “a full-blown moral panic adorned with the usual pointless and counterproductive overreactions.”
“Installing sensors and CCTV won’t work,” he said. “It will just add to the buzz and stimulate teenage ingenuity.”
As in the US, such sensors are already commonplace in schools in Australia.
“Australia has experienced the most extreme reaction to vaping of any of the Western democracies,” Dr. Alex Wodak, a veteran drug policy reform advocate and board member of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA), told Filter. He described the prevalence of sensors in Australian schools—some of which, he said, have even removed toilet doors in an attempt to aid detection—as due to a “media phantasmagoria.”
“Of course, no one wants to see young people vaping,” he continued, “but most vaping by young people occurs after they’ve already started smoking.” He added that smoking among young people was dropping fast, whereas in older Australian populations, smoking rates were “stable” or “only dropping slowly.”
“Somehow we have managed to horribly misconstrue the issue of vaping in young people, he concluded. “A lot has been lost in this irrational, fevered response.”
The US has been the scene of the most high-profile media and political panic around a youth vaping “epidemic.” While there was a spike in overall use some years ago, rates have declined sharply since 2019—and as in the UK, daily vaping among youth who’ve never smoked has always been low.
In justifying the measures at Baxter College, Carpenter, like many international public health figures, cited a supposed “gateway” effect.
Recent analysis by Dr. Cristine Delnovo, director of the Center for Tobacco Studies at Rutgers School of Public Health, pointed out that the US 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey “not only highlighted concerning rates of e-cigarette use (14.1%), it also documented the lowest rate of cigarette smoking (2.0%) ever recorded for high school–aged youths. This is notable, considering that in 2009, around the time when e-cigarettes were introduced in the US, the cigarette smoking prevalence was 23.2%.”
“At the population level,” she concluded, “e-cigarettes do not appear to be a gateway to cigarette smoking.”
That’s critical when UK public health authorities have found that vaping is likely to pose no more than 5 percent of the risks of smoking.
Yet in justifying the measures at Baxter College, Carpenter, like many international public health figures, cited this supposed “gateway” effect.
Further research has also suggested that if vapes weren’t available, more youth would be smoking instead. And when vapes are demonstrated to be more effective smoking cessation aids than nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), it raises the familiar question of why youth should be excluded from harm reduction resources that work for adults.
“It’s so frustrating to talk to people who want to stop smoking, and have them tell me that ‘vaping is more harmful than smoking.’”
There’s an equally familiar worry among harm reductionists in the UK that policies intended to reduce youth vaping could prevent adults who smoke from choosing vapes.
“I hope schools adopting this policy convey to students that smoking is far more harmful than vaping,” Louise Ross, a smoking cessation veteran who launched a pioneering vape-friendly Stop Smoking Service in Leicester, tweeted in response to the BBC’s Baxter College article. She emphasized the general importance of public messaging when she noted the following day: “It’s so frustrating to talk to people who want to stop smoking, and have them tell me that ‘vaping is more harmful than smoking.’”
“There are two things they should do differently,” Bates said. “First, have a sense of proportion—these products just aren’t that harmful and will help some kids to divert from smoking. If they listed out all the things that parents of teenagers should worry about, vaping would be nowhere near the top. Second, schools should go dial down the hysteria and learn to discuss vaping, smoking, alcohol and drugs in a calm and factual way, with a better understanding of teenagers and adolescent experimentation.”
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