The Youth Lab


As schools and universities around the world reopen their doors for a new term, discourse tends towards the cost of uniforms, books, fees, and the pressures on stressed-out students. But this year another topic has entered the chat - a watch-out to parents around the rise of illegal vaping devices disguised as school necessities (like highlighters, ballpoint pens and USB drives). For this week’s 52INSIGHTS we’re exploring the rising youth vaping epidemic - what’s driving it, what role does marketing play, and what next for young people’s health? Is youth vaped out yet, or is this just the start of a growing trend among young people towards flavoursome puff bars?


E-cigarettes and vapes are electronic devices generally used as a substitute for smoking or for recreational purposes. They are battery-powered devices that convert liquid nicotine into vapour, which is inhaled by users. The e-cigarette and vape market accounted for US$ 22.45 billion in 2022, a year-on-year growth of 29.66%, and a considerable leap in size from the 2016 market valuation of $3bn. Between 2022 and 2027, the market value is projected to increase by USD 66.83 billion - an estimated growth of 30.41%. What’s driving the uptake?


In the UK, the second largest e-cigarette market, the highest user base is among 35-44 year olds, where vaping is considered an aid to quitting smoking. However in markets like the US, it’s 18-35 year olds (and under) that are the core user base, who are driven by recreational use. There is a curiosity to try out what they often believe to be a ‘healthier’ alternative to smoking, yet this can open the door to addiction as users can end up consuming even more nicotine than traditional smoking. There’s a number of drivers influencing this recreational uptake:

Flavour & Colour Mania: Mango, sour apple, banana ice-cream, blueberry ice, whatever your flavour there’s a colourful vaping juice to suit every taste. In 2022 the most popular juices for adolescents (ages 12 to 17) and young adults (18 to 24) were fruit, chocolate/alcohol/soft drink/, and menthol in the UK, and fruit, menthol, candy/dessert/other sweets, and mint for young Americans.

Easy to get: There are a growing number of distribution channels and places to buy e-cigs, from retail stores and established vendors to eCommerce. Disposable vapes are also rampant in black markets around the world - in Ireland’s black markets a knock-off of the popular brand ‘Lost Mary’ is sold for half the price as ‘Found Mary’.

Changing cultural norms: As vaping becomes more normalised, its overall uptake grows. For many second level students, school bathrooms serve as ‘vaping spaces’.

“People use to vape in the school bathroom so much that you would be queuing to use the bathroom” - Jade, 23, The Love Network

Easy & Disposable: In 2022, for the first time the disposable vape was the preferred product in the UK at 52% of all teen vapes (an increase from 8% YOY). Disposable vapes are not just lightweight and easy to carry, they’re easy to hide and throw away from prying parents. And with ongoing innovation around new products, there is always a ‘new’ product to try.

“It’s so annoying when people vape on the bus.” - Claire, 21, The Love Network

Lack of knowledge regarding environmental impact: In the UK 15% of users (particularly young users) use disposable vapes (up from 2% in 2021) - the equivalent of 1.3m disposable vapes thrown away each week. Disposable vapes are to blame for a dramatic rise in fires at recycling plants over the past year, while toxic chemicals from waste have entered into waterways and countryside negatively impacting wildlife.

Perceived safety vs other tobacco products: There is a critical lack of education around the health implications of vaping; While marketed as a better alternative to cigarettes, many are unaware that electronic cigarettes actually contain nicotine. The reality is that vapers often uptake more nicotine than smokers. Many users are also largely unaware of the extent of health dangers e-Cigarettes and vapes pose - from Vapers Tongue to Popcorn Lung and potentially many more unknown dangers that science don’t know about yet.

“They think ‘ah well I’m not smoking, so I’m grand’ I don’t think they care about the effects at all..’cause they are young and want to look cool.” - Lisa, 21, The Love Network

“We will find out how bad it is when morticians are studying their corpses.” - Amy, 24, The Love Network


Another key reason for the uptake among young people is marketing, albeit irresponsible marketing, promoting vaping as attractive and safe. Case in hand JUUL, which at its peak in 2018 held 70% market share in the USA. They marketed their flavoursome products as “a break from “parental texts and WFH stress” without communicating that their products could be more addictive than cigarettes.

But JUUL could soon be up in smoke. This year, it was ordered to pay more than $1.7 billion to settle more than 5,000 lawsuits by school districts, local governments and individuals in California who claimed that e-cigarettes were more addictive than advertised. This on the back of a $438.5 million multistate youth vaping inquiry into the company’s marketing and sales practices.


Global market reports predict the ever-growing expansion of the e-cigarette sector, with the make-up of users in the future beginning to skew older. Legislation and education all have key parts to play for the safer future of Vaping. Medics, health officers, concerned parents and politicians alike are calling for legislation equivalent to that of cigarette marketing. Right now, festivals across Europe from Glastonbury to Electric Picnic have banned disposable vapes from the grounds in an effort to curb waste - citing them as “pollutants to the environment and potentially hazardous at waste centres”. Perhaps more countries will follow Australia’s leadership (May 2023) and introduce legislation to ban all single-use disposable vapes, halt the importation of nonprescription vapes and restrict certain flavours, colours and ingredients - all with the goal of “shutting down a major health risk to the youngest generation”. And with growing education around negative health and environmental impacts, maybe more young people themselves will avoid them completely, marketing or no marketing.

“I’ve kept the pledge, I’ve never vaped- just breathe air.” - Jack, 19, The Love Network


Stay true to responsible marketing codes of practice

While youth audiences are attractive sales audiences in terms of current and future potential spending power, marketeers have a duty of responsibility given teens and young adults still have a lot of (cognitive) growing up to do (literally, their brains are still growing). So, do the right thing and be wise to who and how you market your products and services.