Johannesburg – The first thing that 17-year-old Marcus Brooks* does when he opens his eyes in the morning is reach for his electronic cigarette.He inhales a few puffs from the device, commonly known as a vape, and is ready to start his day.
The teenager insists that this fleeting morning ritual is equivalent to a cup of strongly-brewed coffee. “I can’t start my day without taking a few pulls from my vape,” says Brooks.
He is one of a growing number of teenagers, and even adolescents, who are making use of electronic cigarettes across the country.
Although e-cigarettes are considered safer than conventional cigarettes as they contain less harmful substances, health experts insist that smoking in any form is harmful.
A quick glance at the many e-cigarette stores, also known as Vape Cafés, around Joburg show youngsters coming out in their numbers to buy electronic cigarettes and related products.
Brooks, who dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, is aware of the health implications of smoking. That’s why he sought an alternative.
“When I vape, it doesn’t make my lungs feel heavy like cigarettes do, so I don’t think that it is bad for me and I don’t struggle to run around playing soccer when I vape.”
He took his first puff from a cigarette when he was around 14. “I hated the taste and the way it made me feel, so I didn’t continue the habit, but sometimes I’d still take a few drags from a friend’s cigarette when we were drinking (alcohol) and hanging out.”
A classmate introduced him to vaping two years ago – and he’s been hooked ever since. “The thing that I really enjoy about it is that the vaping flavours taste amazing and it doesn’t feel like I’m smoking at all.”
Unlike normal cigarettes, the liquid added to a vaping device comes in various inviting assortments. Some of the most popular include fruit flavours, mint, coffee as well as dessert choices such as bubblegum, cotton candy and caramel.
Bernard Loots, the founder of Kush Koncepts, a local vaping lifestyle product brand, e-liquid manufacturer and distributor insists his firm is doing all it can to prevent those who are under-age from purchasing their products.
“We have a strict policy of no sale to any persons under the age of 18, whether these flavours contain nicotine or not. We also try to have our products sold to smokers instead of non-smokers,” he says.
Kush Koncepts has also applied specifications to its products. This includes the use of an age restrictor on their website, a visible disclaimer for the nicotine found in the products and using payment methods only available to those over the age of 18.
Only over-18s are allowed in its stores, and a signature is required when purchasing a product. If necessary, identification proof must be submitted. “We try our utmost not to create an association to teens,” insists Loots.
In line with World No Tobacco Day, which was commemorated on Thursday, the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa warns that although e-cigarettes are considered a healthier alternative to conventional cigarette smoking, this does not mean it’s healthy.
Professor Pamela Naidoo, the chief executive, explains this is because e-cigarettes still contain traces of nicotine and other harmful substances. “Teenagers face health dangers as the concoction in e-cigarettes is not harmless,” says Naidoo.
“In addition, this might become habitual leading them to cigarette smoking and ultimately addition to tobacco smoking and as we all know cigarettes contain nicotine which is extremely harmful.”
On e-cigarettes, the National Council Against Smoking directs users of its website to a report by the US Surgeon General in 2016, which warns that tobacco use among young people and young adults in any form, including e-cigarettes is not safe.
“In recent years, e-cigarette use by youth and young adults has increased at an alarming rate. E-cigarettes are now the most commonly used tobacco product among youth in the US. E-cigarette companies appear to be using many of the advertising tactics the tobacco industry used to persuade a new generation of young people to use their products.”
While the Heart and Stroke Foundation does not have data regarding the number of teenagers who vape in SA, Naidoo believes advertising vaping as an alternative to cigarette smoking makes it attractive to young people, which influences them to vape or use other forms of non-combustible tobacco and other products.
More regulation is on the cards. The new draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, which has now been published for comment, regulates electronic cigarettes for the first time, prohibiting the sale of “electronic delivery systems” to and by persons under the age of 18 years.
The bill has the vaping industry up in smoke, which argues that the vaping industry needs to be considered “as a partner to the health agenda in South Africa.
“Our members have pro-actively been adhering to their own code of conduct. We voluntarily have committed ourselves to not selling the product to and by people under the age of 18,” says the Vapour Product Association.
Meanwhile, the Gauteng Department of Education says vaping is considered in the same category as regular smoking.
“Schools should ensure that they include the prohibition of e-cigarette in their code of conduct, to prevent vaping on school premises.”
* Not his real name.