Over a third of British Gen Z adults are hooked on nicotine, with vaping surge sharply reversing historic decline

The share of young people in the U.K. who vape has tripled in the last three years, new research shows, pushing up nicotine addiction in a reversal of historic trends. 

Research from University College London suggests disposable vapes have created a sizable youth population who wouldn’t have smoked otherwise.

According to the study, the share of 18-24-year-olds who inhale nicotine products has jumped from 28% to 35% since 2021.

A big driver of that increase has been vaping, which has exploded in popularity with the mass marketing of disposable vapes. The proportion of 18-24-year-olds who use e-cigarettes has soared from 9% in May 2021 to 29% in May 2024. 

Based on historical trends, the rise was far from predictable. Indeed, the researchers say smoking and vaping had been declining among adults up until June 2021. 

Vaping mania

E-cigarettes were initially produced as a less harmful alternative to smoking and marketed almost exclusively to frequent cigarette users.

However, researchers have warned that vaping is now creating nicotine addicts out of people who wouldn’t have otherwise used nicotine products. A lot of that has to do with how they’re being marketed.

While there are tight restrictions on cigarette packaging—which is required in the U.K. to display graphic images and messages about the proven health risks, with advertising banned—rules are more relaxed for vapes.

Chinese e-cigarette brands like Lost Mary and Elf Bar have helped nicotine pushers find a new, younger clientele, selling vapes with bright colors and appealing flavors like watermelon and sour cherry. Other major companies that have traditionally pedaled cigarettes, including Marlboro producer Philip Morris International, are pivoting to vapes as legislation and taxes increasingly push out tobacco products. 

Philip Morris has marketed a “smoke-free future” in recent years, which is centered on nicotine alternatives to smoking, largely through the selling of e-cigarettes.

“Since disposable vapes started becoming popular in England, historic declines in nicotine use have reversed,” the researchers wrote. 

“Now, nicotine use appears to be rising, driven primarily by sharp increases in vaping among young people. Smoking declines have been most pronounced in age groups with the largest increases in vaping.”

While vapes are indeed less harmful than cigarettes, they are far from risk-free, and experts do not advise non-smokers to take up the highly addictive habit. Because they’re so new, little is known about their long-term health risks, although a new study from Seoul National University Bundang Hospital found people who took up vaping after quitting smoking were more likely to develop lung cancer than those who quit the habit entirely. 

Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government has brought in legislation to stamp out nicotine use before it spirals out of control.

A new bill would make it illegal for anyone born after 2009 to smoke at any point in their lives, with the minimum age to buy cigarettes gradually rising from 18, eventually outlawing smoking for the entire population.

That bill is expected to be shelved until after the U.K. General Election on July 4.

Disposable vapes, the most common way to use e-cigarettes, will be banned in the U.K. from April next year.

UCL’s study seems to confirm anecdotal evidence observed on any street or bar populated by Gen Zers, who are increasingly finding any means to get nicotine into their systems.

In place of vapes, other young people have opted to use nicotine pouches, with Swedish brand Zyn, owned by Philip Morris, soaring in popularity in the U.S.

Not just limited to nicotine, young consumers have also become obsessed with Zyn’s lucrative rewards system, with frequent users of the products able to cash in their dependency on $400 Apple Watches and $600 Dyson Air Wraps. 

Nicotine pouches like Zyn have so far been able to skirt regulations because they aren’t inhaled products.

Lawmakers will likely continue to grapple with Big Nicotine’s maneuvers to get their products to a willing younger audience, and the latest data indicates they can scarcely afford to lose any time.

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