To vape, or not to vape? Teaching children and teens about e-cigarettes 

Teenagers are well-versed in the dangers of tobacco smoking. In fact, young people are so well-educated on how cigarettes affect the lungs and the harm caused by passive smoking that teen smoking is now firmly in decline. But taking its place could be a new and unknown quantity, the e-cigarette. Parents, teachers and children alike know relatively little about this new habit, and even experts are divided on its potential health risks. With all that in mind, let’s explore how schools can best approach teaching children about e-cigarettes.

Background information

Teaching children about e-cigarettes should involve giving them the facts, then helping them to evaluate what they’ve learnt. Using some basic information about e-cigarettes, you can lead a lesson on vaping and its context alongside the tobacco and drug industries.

 • Who invented vaping? The invention of vaping can be traced back to 1963, when an inventor called Herbert A. Gilbert registered a patent for a ‘smokeless, non-tobacco cigarette’.

Talking points: Why didn’t it catch on at the time? Was tobacco marketing to blame?

• When did e-cigarettes first become popular? Vaping entered mainstream culture in 2007, when e-cigarettes first went on sale in the UK. Talking points: What had changed since the 1960s to make vaping attractive in 2007?

Talk about health information, increased public awareness of the dangers of tobacco, and the smoking ban that came into force that year.

• How does an e-cigarette work? Vaping works by using electricity to heat up flavoured liquid and turn it into a vapour, which is inhaled. The vapour usually contains nicotine, the same addictive substance smoked in cigarettes, but is tobacco-free.

Talking points: What do you think are the benefits of vaping over cigarette smoking? Can you think of any risks or dangers?

• Is it legal? Vaping is legal for adults, but a ban was recently put in place for anyone under 18. There are also restrictions on advertising e-cigarettes and vaping liquid.

Talking points: What do you think about the ban? Is it a good idea?

• Will vaping lead to further drug use? It has been suggested that teenagers who take up vaping might be more likely to move on to smoke cigarettes, although experts are divided on this.

Talking points: Do you think vaping might be a gateway to further experimentation? Why / why not?

The facts about vaping

What do young people know about vaping? Teens are likely to have lots of questions. Leading a question-and-answer session that addresses some of these questions is a great way to assess what your year group already knows, dispel any myths or misinformation, and begin a debate on the pros and cons of vaping. Typical questions might include the following:

• What are e-cigarettes? What’s in the vapour?
Answer: E-cigarettes are a battery-powered alternative to traditional cigarettes. Instead of inhaling smoke, vapers inhale a vapour that is made by heating up e-liquid. This contains nicotine and flavourings.

Are e-cigarettes safe? Will they explode? Answer: Although e-cigarettes are much less harmful to health than tobacco-based smoking products, they’re not 100% risk-free. Because they are battery powered, vapers need to be aware of basic battery safety and avoid misuse. If the product is regulated and instructions are followed, e-cigarettes should not explode or catch fire.

Are they addictive? Answer: Yes. E-liquid usually contains nicotine, which is the same addictive substance found in traditional cigarettes. The evidence for and against vaping Some see vaping as a dangerous new habit, whose harmful effects are yet to be seen. Others hail e-cigarettes as a healthy alternative to cigarette smoking, which is helping addicts to quit, reducing their risk of smoking-related diseases and taking pressure off the NHS. What’s the truth behind the hype? Teaching children about vaping will mean discussing these issues in detail. Here are some quotes to spark a discussion:

• “There could be long-term heart dangers. They are far more dangerous than people realise,” said Greek heart specialist Charalambos Vlachopoulos on the publication of a study that warns of the possible health risks of vaping.

• “E-cigarettes are a very effective way to help people cut down on smoking, which we know is extremely harmful. Public Health England’s advice is that vaping is 95% safer than tobacco, and that it’s a successful tool to help people quit,” says Simon Johnson, owner of e-cigarette retailer Vapetto.
When dealing with a topic that doesn’t always have concrete answers, young people are empowered to use their critical thinking skills and explore the issues for themselves. Ask them to look at the evidence behind the claims above. Which is backed up by the best scientific knowledge?

Teaching resources

There are lots of teaching resources and lesson plans available for those teaching teens about vaping in PSHE (personal, social and health education). Here’s a selection of useful study resources currently available online – note that some were published before the 2017 Tobacco Products Directive came into force.

• E-cigarettes - miracle or menace? Horizon documentary
• Smoking and vaping lesson plan
• Teen-friendly information about e-cigarettes
• Debate and activities around the safety of e-cigarettes
Briefing from ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) on vaping
What are the facts on e-cigarettes? 16-17 year olds ask experts to explain the details. All Party Parliamentary Group on Primary Care and Public Health Report
Tobacco Education lesson plan for KS3 and 4, from Lancashire County Council. Includes a section on vaping