School for scandal – how metal detectors highlighted a troubling youth trend

The first item on the BBC’s morning news round-up was about vaping – not a subject you often hear mentioned on Radio 3, the classical music station. And of course, as you expect even in e-cig-loving Britain, the news wasn’t good.

This time it was that schoolchildren were inhaling dangerously high quantities of certain metals, including more than twice the safe daily amount of lead, nearly seven times the safe level of chromium, and over nine times the safe level of nickel. Time for alarm bells to ring, even – or perhaps especially – after it was noted that most of the e-cigarettes concerned were illegal and unregulated products.

My immediate assumption was that the BBC was catching up a little late with a story run in this very blog last month on UK Trading Standards’ currently losing battle against a “tidal wave” of dodgy vapes. Not so, however.

This one concerned e-cigs confiscated from pupils at a school in western England and subjected to tests at a Liverpool laboratory that works with legitimate vape manufacturers to ensure regulatory standards are met. And it’s safe to say that those law-abiding manufacturers will have been as concerned as anyone – not to say downright furious – at what was turned out of the pupils’ pockets.

For it was clear that these particular “highlighter vapes”, made in bright colours to look like highlighter pens, had never been near a testing lab before being sold in the UK to their under-age users.

As the lab’s co-founder David Lawson told the BBC: “None of these should be on the market – they break all the rules on permitted levels of metal. They are the worst set of results I’ve ever seen. In 15 years of testing, I have never [before] seen lead in a device.”


The hard sell

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    While admitting that “we are a long way behind the curve in influencing children’s behaviour around this,” the head of the school concerned took a remarkably balanced view that few of us could disagree with.

    “As a society we are capable of holding two messages,” he said. “One that if you smoke already, vaping can have a positive effect on your health, but children should not be vaping.”

    Of course, youth trends will always come and go, but there’s a clear danger that this one could be around for some time, long enough perhaps for lasting habits to be instilled. At the same time, dire warnings what headteacher Mat Carpenter calls “a strong message” are apt to be ignored, or actively counterproductive, when addressed to naturally rebellious, risk-seeking youth.

    So the subsidiary, and perhaps greater, danger is that illegal, unregulated and untested products could actually be more alluring to their potential victims than the legal, tested and compliant e-cigs that they aren’t officially allowed to buy anyway.

    Like youth crazes from teddy-boys to skinheads, ecstasy to sniffin’ glue, it’s a conundrum, with no obvious solution except passing time. And, in this case if there was any realistic way to achieve it tightly enforced regulation not just of manufacturing but of sales.

    Because, of course, those kids who can’t buy legal, tested vapes from law-abiding retailers aren’t officially allowed to buy the dodgy untested ones either. But they’re getting them from somewhere.

    Demonstrating a truth that applies far more widely than just the vaping industry, and which might usefully be considered by lawmakers everywhere that however sophisticated your product regulation may be, it’s virtually meaningless without retail regulation.

    Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff

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    Aidan Semmens