Exclusive figures, given to ITV News, reveal a third of children have seen e-cigarettes advertised online, as Sam Holder reports
Schools across the UK are installing vape detection units in toilets and using airport-style wands to try to tackle rising numbers of underage students using e-cigarettes.
The units use lasers to measure air quality and then alert teachers when an alarm has been set off, while the wands find devices that students have hidden under their clothes.
Simon Hassett, founder of VapeGuardian, developed the sensors after a teacher friend alerted him to the issue of vaping in schools.
“Our sensors detect the vapour once it has come out of someone’s lungs, and it’s extremely offensive” he says. “I have been particularly shocked by the amount of nicotine and microplastics in every puff.”
On average, when first installed in schools the sensors are being set off between 17 and 22 times a day.
Copthall School, an all-girls high school in north London, has put in the devices after finding children as young as Year 7 (age 11-12) leaving class in order to vape in the toilets.
A recent trend has seen students filming themselves vaping, uploading the videos to TikTok and then tagging the clips with the name of the school.
Despite the school being able to prove that the children in the videos are underage, teachers say they are unable to get the videos taken down.
“It’s quite difficult to get the videos removed especially with TikTok”, says teacher Poonam Dave. “You can report the videos but TikTok will come back and say they won’t be able to remove them.”
Staff at Copthall School believe social media clips are normalising e-cigarette usage, resulting in students who would ordinarily be unwilling to experiment with nicotine-based products trying vapes.
“I’m seeing people as young as 12 or 13 vaping and that does concern me as I don’t think they see health implications,” says headteacher Evelyn Forde.
Exclusive figures shared with ITV News by the anti-smoking charity ASH show that a third of under-18s have been exposed to vape promotion online.
That includes young influencers on TikTok who film sponsored clips of themselves unboxing and then trying different disposable e-cigarettes.
Advertising Standards Authority rules say e-cigarette promotions are not allowed at all on social media and anybody who is or looks under-25 must not appear in adverts promoting vaping, but ITV News found plenty of examples of both on the Chinese-owned platform - including from accounts where the user states in their profile that they are aged 20 or under.
In a statement to ITV News, TikTok said “Our guidelines make clear that content promoting the sale, trade or offer of tobacco, including vaping products, is not permitted, regardless of age.
"There is no finish line when it comes to our community's safety and we will continue to invest at scale in our people and technology to proactively detect and remove content that violates our Community Guidelines."
A sponsored TikTok video promoting vaping products by 19 year-old Gogglebox star George Baggs was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, who are now turning to AI to identify posts that break the rules due the sheer quantity they are finding.
ITV News found posts with links to sites where children can buy vapes without identification and one account promising to send e-cigarettes hidden inside toy packaging to avoid detection.
Under current legislation, e-cigarettes are not a ‘licensed product’, meaning anybody can sell them.
A current loophole in the law means that producers are allowed to send free samples to children under the age of 18, so long as they do not make them pay.
The government has promised to make tackling underage vaping a priority and is spending £3 million on new "illicit vape enforcement squads".
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