The number of children and young people who are trying vaping is on the rise, according to a report.
While overall use of e-cigarettes among young people remains low, the number who have ever tried it has almost doubled in four years.
The report was led by researchers at King’s College London and commissioned by Public Health England (PHE).
It looked at surveys relating to e-cigarette use among young people, the most recent of which was the Action on Smoking and Health YouGov survey of more than 2,000 children aged 11 to 18 in 2018.
Young people aged 11 to 15 answered the survey online but were recruited to the panel by their parents, who were asked to let children answer on their own.
Teenagers aged 16 to 18 were recruited and answered the questions themselves.
The survey showed that 11.7% of 11 to 18-year-olds in 2018 had tried e-cigarettes once or twice at some point, almost double the 6.5% in 2014.
Awareness of vaping has also risen, and the proportion who said they had never tried e-cigarettes fell from 91.5% in 2014 to 83.4% in 2018.
Some 3.4% of those polled in 2018 reported using e-cigarettes currently – more than double the 1.6% in 2014.
In 2018, 1.8% reported using them at least once a month but not weekly, and a further 1.7% reported using them at least weekly.
The report said: “Experimentation and use of e-cigarettes has been increasing steadily over time.”
Awareness of e-cigarettes, experimentation and use were higher among older children, the report said.
Some 96.3% of 11-year-olds had never used an e-cigarette or were unaware of them, compared with 68.4% of 18-year-olds.
There was also a definite link between vaping and smoking, researchers said, with smokers far more likely to try vaping than those who had never smoked.
Of children and young people who were current smokers, 15.8% also used electronic cigarettes at least weekly, compared with 3.7% of former smokers and 0.2% of those who had never smoked.
When youngsters who had tried an e-cigarette were asked why, 57.2% said they wanted to give it a try, while 16.1% said they liked the flavours.
The survey also found that of all those who had tried an e-cigarette, the proportion who had tried a tobacco cigarette first has been steadily declining, from 70% in 2014 to 46% in 2018.
The proportion trying vaping before a tobacco cigarette rose from 8% in 2014 to 21% in 2018.
The figure for those who have tried vaping but not a tobacco cigarette has been steadily increasing, from 18% in 2014 to 30% in 2018.
Overall, 1.7% of 11 to 18-year-olds reported at least weekly use of an e-cigarette in 2018.
In August, Coventry University researchers published a separate study of 500 children showing that more than half of e-cigarette users aged between 11 and 16 had never smoked a tobacco cigarette.
The academics expressed concern that rising numbers of young people may be trying vaping to experiment or because they think it is “cool”, and do not realise that e-cigarettes also contain nicotine.
The new report said vaping among adults in Britain has remained stable since 2015.
In 2017/18, 5.4% to 6.2% of adults were estimated to vape, with the figure among current smokers being 14.9% to 18.5%.
Some 10.3% to 11.3% of current smokers vape, the report found, while less than 1% of people who have never smoked use e-cigarettes.
In stop smoking services, the proportion of quit attempts using an e-cigarette remains low at 4.1%.
The report said that while England “continues to take small progressive steps towards ensuring vaping remains an accessible and appealing alternative to smoking”, more can be done.
It said more smokers may be attracted to vaping if a licensed e-cigarette was available and barriers to “licensing and the commercialising of licensed products need further exploration”.
Professor John Newton, health improvement director at PHE, said the UK was “not seeing a surge in e-cigarette use among young people in Britain”.
He added: “While more young people are experimenting with e-cigarettes, the crucial point is that regular use remains low and is very low indeed among those who have never smoked.
“We will keep a close watch on young people’s vaping and smoking habits to ensure we stay on track to achieve our ambition of a smoke-free generation.”
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, said: “ASH survey results included in the PHE report show the vast majority of vaping is by smokers trying to quit or prevent themselves from relapsing, which is just what e-cigarettes are designed for.
“However, our surveys also show that over a third of smokers have not yet tried vaping, which is a colossal missed opportunity as there is growing evidence that e-cigarettes are the most effective aid to quitting.”
Ann McNeill, professor of tobacco addiction at King’s College London and the lead author of the report, said: “We are encouraged that regular vaping among young people in Britain who have never smoked remains low.
“However, we need to stay vigilant and in particular closely monitor youth smoking.”