rug use and smoking are in decline among high school pupils, but vaping is on the rise, according to a new report.
New figures from NHS Digital suggest that some 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds in England smoke e-cigarettes.
This is a rise from 6% in 2018 – the last time the figures were published.
A leading children’s doctor said he was “deeply disturbed” by the rise in children and young people picking up e-cigarettes.
Consultant paediatrician specialising in respiratory illnesses, Dr Mike McKean, said children are being “targeted by e-cigarette companies with bright packaging, exotic flavours and enticing names” and without action “we run the risk of having generations of children addicted to nicotine”.
E-cigarette use is more common among older pupils, according to the Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England 2021 report.
Just 1% of 11-year-olds said they used e-cigarettes compared with 18% of 15-year-olds.
And current e-cigarette use for 15-year-old girls increased from 10% in 2018 to 21% in 2021
Meanwhile the proportion of pupils who said they were smokers declined from 5% in 2018 to 3% in 2021.
And 12% reported having ever smoked, a decrease from 16% in 2018, according to the survey of secondary school pupils, mostly aged 11 to 15.
Earlier this year data from the charity Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) showed that the proportion of children vaping is on the rise, with many being influenced by social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram.
The study, shared exclusively with the PA news agency, also found that children were increasingly drawn to newer, disposable e-cigarettes which cost about £5 each and come in a wide range of fruity flavours.
Some 6% of pupils said they usually drank alcohol at least once a week, which is unchanged between the two surveys.
In 2021, 40% of pupils said they had ever had an alcoholic drink, compared with 44% in 2018, and just over a third (34%) of pupils said that they drank alcohol at least a few times a year.
Older pupils were more likely to report they had been drunk in the last month compared with almost no 11-year-olds.
Among the small number who said they are current drinkers, pupils were more likely to report drinking at home compared with 2018, and two thirds said they usually drank with their parents.
Meanwhile some 18% of pupils reported having ever taken drugs, down from 24% in 2018.
Cannabis is the drug pupils were most likely to have taken, with 6% saying they had taken it in 2021, down from 8% in 2018.
Those reporting taking Class A drugs has remained at about 2% to 3% since 2010.
The survey also asked children about their wellbeing, life satisfaction, happiness, and anxiety.
Girls reported lower measures of wellbeing compared with boys.
Almost half (46%) of 15-year-old girls reported a low level of happiness, and 51% reported a high level of anxiety on the previous day.
Some 57% of young people who had recently smoked, drunk alcohol and taken drugs reported low levels of life satisfaction compared with 35% who had recently done just one of these things, and 18% who had not recently smoked, drunk or taken drugs, NHS Digital said.
Commenting on the report Dr McKean, who is also vice president of policy at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “As a paediatrician I am deeply disturbed by the rise of children and young people picking up e-cigarettes.
“E-cigarettes remain a relatively new product and their long-term effects are still unknown.
“It is clear that children and young people are being targeted by e-cigarette companies with bright packaging, exotic flavours and enticing names.
“Disposable e-cigarettes are growing in popularity amongst children and young people and can be accessed easily in newsagents and sweet shops. Nowadays there is a vape shop on almost every high street.
“These companies are simply interested in ‘hooking’ children and young people to make a profit off them – there is absolutely no thought or care about their health and wellbeing.
“It is time for the UK Government to act by introducing plain packaging of e-cigarettes and nicotine and non-nicotine e-liquids packs.
“Tighter restrictions on advertising of vaping products are also needed to ensure these products are only advertised for their medicinal purpose as a smoking reduction aid rather than a fun and colourful lifestyle product.
“If action is not taken soon, we run the risk of having generations of children addicted to nicotine.”
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, added: “The NHS Digital survey shows the same concerning rise in underage vaping as ASH data published in July.
“Schools, parents and local authorities are looking for help, and ASH has just published guidance on how to tackle youth vaping, available on our website.
“But while further action on vaping is needed, it is still only a small minority of children vaping and it is encouraging to see that the NHS Digital survey finds youth smoking has continued to decline, as smoking is far more harmful than vaping.”
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