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Dundee

Inside the Dundee school fighting back against the teen vape epidemic

The Courier meets students concerned for their peers, teens hooked on vaping, and the Morgan Academy headmaster who says vaping has become part of who pupils "aspire to be". reports.
Joanna Bremner
These Morgan Academy pupils are concerned about their  peers who are vaping. Katya Walls (school vice captain, 6th year), Crawford Miller (school vice captain, 6th year),  Imaan Hussain (school captain, 6th year) and Lewis Brown (5th year). Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.
These Morgan Academy pupils are concerned about their peers who are vaping. Katya Walls (school vice captain, 6th year), Crawford Miller (school vice captain, 6th year), Imaan Hussain (school captain, 6th year) and Lewis Brown (5th year). Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

Before heading to Dundee’s Morgan Academy, I knew about the growing vape obsession among teens, but I was horrified to hear one 15-year-old admit she “can’t live without” her e-cigarette.

The school is among many fighting a losing battle against their pupils’ growing vape fixation – the nicotine-laced vapour, which is cheap, colourful and as one girl told me “yummy”.

I spoke to three teens about their habit. The trio are among several in their year group that have been vaping since first year.

I asked Violet, sitting in her school uniform after assembly, why she vapes.

“It just tastes so nice,” she told me. “And when I don’t have one, I feel really agitated.”

The 15-year-old goes through four or five vapes a week. She said she can’t go a single week without using an e-cigarette.

Campaigner Laura Young spoke to the school pupils on the dangers of vapes. Image: Joanna Bremner/DC Thomson.
Campaigner Laura Young spoke to the school pupils on the dangers of vapes. Image: Joanna Bremner/DC Thomson.

Violet said she was feeling agitated while we were talking. She certainly looked it, fidgeting and avoiding eye contact. She would need to vape once we had finished talking, she said.

Her friend Susan went one step further: “I can’t live without it,” she explained.

The three pupils were subdued while we talked, and although they didn’t seem embarrassed about their habit, they were unapologetic.

“It looks bad,” one said, “but it doesn’t taste bad.”

They admitted to me that they “don’t care” about the consequences.

The girl said she has no trouble purchasing disposable vapes in Dundee – even while wearing her school uniform, and without providing ID.

It is, of course, illegal for stores to sell vapes to children under the age of 18.

How is Morgan Academy in Dundee tackling the vaping problem?

Staff at Morgan Academy invited me to join 800 teens for an assembly on vapes, led by Laura Young. Laura is leading a campaign to see disposable vapes banned across Scotland with Dundee the first local authority in Scotland to publicly support her call.

I spoke to some other Morgan senior pupils, one of whom said they find the current vape fixation “scary”.

Katya Walls is a school vice-captain at Morgan Academy. She said: “With the potential ban, I know people that said they will buy a whole pack of them on Amazon so they won’t run out.

“And when I’m with them, they actually could not put it down. They were using their vape every five minutes. They go through so many – maybe two a day.”

These students are worried about the number of young people in Dundee vaping. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson
These students are worried about the number of young people in Dundee vaping. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Imaan Hussain, another sixth year, adds: “The smoke is bad, even in school. You smell it all the way down the corridors and outside.

“It’s quite scary, coming into school and having these things used constantly around you.”

Vaping now ‘aspirational’ for Dundee teens, warns head teacher

Head teacher of Morgan Academy, Johnny Lothian, explained his staff are continually patrolling the popular vaping spots on school grounds.

“We challenge it if we see it. It’s completely unacceptable for young people to be vaping in school.”

I asked him why he thinks the situation has got so bad, not only in his school, but across the country. His answer will be familiar to many parents – peer pressure.

Head teacher Johnny Lothian outside Morgan Academy. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.
Head teacher Johnny Lothian outside Morgan Academy. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

He said: “We should never underestimate the pressure that is on young people to conform with their group. For many young people, vaping is part of who they aspire to be.

“That’s not to say that it can’t be challenged. But it’s going to take a lot of time and intervention to help them see the financial, social and health impact of addiction over time.”

More than one in 10 of Scottish S4s vape regularly

Statistics released in May this year show a marked increase in the amount of young people in Scotland who are using vapes.

The amount of S2 pupils vaping regularly (once a week or more) has increased from 2% to 4.3% between a study in 2018 and the Health and Wellbeing Census in 2021/2022.

And the number of S4 pupils regularly vaping, that’s fifteen year olds, has increased from 3% to 10.1%. 

That’s compared to a total of 2.7% (1.6% for S2, 4.3% for S4) that are regular smokers.

Scientists admit there is not enough research on the health impact of vaping

While the science suggests the risks of using vapes are less than the risks for smoking, both contain nicotine.

I contacted Jacob George, the professor of cardiovascular medicine and therapeutics at Dundee University, to find out more about the latest research around the risks to health.

“At the moment we know that legal vapes that are sold in the high street and contain nicotine are less harmful that tobacco cigarettes,” he told me.

“What we don’t know is what the long-term effect of vaping is because it’s a relatively new phenomenon. There are a lot of unknowns.”

Professor Jacob George wants to know if passive vaping can cause harm. Image: University of Dundee.
Professor Jacob George wants to know if passive vaping can cause harm. Image: University of Dundee.

Jacob and other experts from the Universities of Dundee, Abertay and St Andrews are working together on a study to determine the effects of passive vaping. He is particularly concerned about teenagers – especially those who have never smoked before – taking up the vaping habit.

“The concern that I have is that young people think it’s completely harmless. It isn’t. Nothing should be put in your lungs apart from fresh air. The flavours are a huge concern of mine.

“My personal view is nicotine itself is not the the issue in terms of detriment. It’s the additional additives and the other stuff in tobacco, cigarettes and vapes that are the harmful elements.”

How is the industry responding to teen vape epidemic?

Doug Mutter is director of vape giant VPZ. He supports a ban on disposable vapes, the devices favoured by many young people, provided it is administered properly.

VPZ train their staff to challenge 25 so they don’t sell vapes to young people.

He added: “The school kids hate VPZ, because they won’t even get in the door.”

Doug Mutter of VPZ would support a ban on disposable vapes. Image: VPZ.
Doug Mutter of VPZ would support a ban on disposable vapes. Image: VPZ.

A spokesperson for Dundee City Council said the sale of vapes to underage customers is a “high priority” for the Trading Standards service in Dundee.

This year alone they have issued 17 Fixed Penalty Notices in relation to underage sales.

But John Dunne, director general of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), said low fines are to blame for many retailers selling vapes to kids.

“The UK Vaping Industry Association totally and unequivocally condemns the sale of vapes to minors and has been calling on the government for some time to clamp down hard on those retailers who sell to children,” he said.

“It is little wonder that so many flout the law when we see derisory fines – sometimes as low as £26 handed out.”

“Trading Standards has been under-resourced for far too long now and significantly more resources need to be made available if we are to effectively stop the sale of vapes to teenagers.”

  • Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity. 
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