Nicholas Thomas Local Democracy Reporter
Teachers are catching children as young as seven with vapes in schools, as a headteacher warns punishment alone is not enough to tackle the “explosion” of vaping among underage users.
It is illegal for under-18s to use or buy electronic cigarettes, yet researchers have found that one in five secondary school pupils in Wales has tried vaping, and one in 20 vapes regularly.
Richard Owen, headteacher at Idris Davies School in Rhymney, told Caerphilly councillors the popularity of vaping had “grown considerably” in schools “over the last few years” and vapes were “much easier” for pupils to buy than cigarettes.
His comments come in the same week politicians announced plans to make it harder for young people in the UK to access nicotine products.
Proposals include banning tobacco sales to people born in or after 2009, and restricting flavours and packaging for vapes.
Mr Owen told Caerphilly Council’s education scrutiny committee on Tuesday (January 30) it was “concerning” that vapes’ designs “seem to be targeted towards young children”, and had flavours such as candy floss, raspberry and cola.
He said there had been a “substantial increase” in the number of children vaping in breaks, and more recently this had crept into times when pupils should be in lessons.
The school has been forced to install “vape alarms” in bathrooms, with some pupils reportedly taking up to 15 “toilet breaks” a day to vape.
This is causing disruption to learning, as well as an increase in antisocial behaviour in the bathrooms, Mr Owen told councillors – adding that while vape use is more common among older pupils, it is “now starting to creep down into Key Stage 2”.
Simply punishing those caught with vapes was unlikely to change their behaviour, he said, explaining that his school seeks to educate pupils who are often misinformed about the risks of vaping.
Electronic cigarettes first became popular among smokers looking to quit.
Current NHS advice notes vaping is “substantially less harmful” than cigarettes and is “one of the most effective tools for quitting smoking”.
Mr Owen said there was “a lot of misunderstanding” of this messaging among young people, who perceive vaping as “positive”.
The products still contain highly-addictive nicotine, and councillor Julian Simmonds noted the growing popularity of low-standard knock-offs means there may be other harmful ingredients lurking inside.
The health service guidance also notes vaping is not “completely harmless” and “we only recommend it for adult smokers, to support quitting smoking and staying quit”.
Mr Owen said that as well as increased supervision at his school, “what’s really important is highlighting the dangers of vaping to children” and the parents of those who are caught.
“What we want to try and do is stop it from happening again,” he said.
The Welsh Government is also planning to ban disposable vapes “due to their significant environmental impacts” and underage use.
The number of children using vapes has “tripled in the past three years”, deputy minister for wellbeing Lynne Neagle said.
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