And the majority of those who do use the devices regularly were already smokers according to the study, published in BMJ Open. The research suggests that e-cigarettes are unlikely to be increasing nicotine addiction rates in young people at present.
The findings were drawn from two large surveys of primary and secondary school children in Wales – CHETS Wales 2 (which was part-funded by Cancer Research UK) and the Welsh Health Behaviour in School aged Children.
These included a total of 1,601 children aged 10-11, and 9,055 11-16 years olds from more than 150 schools in Wales between 2013 and 2014. The researchers – based between the universities of Cardiff and Glasgow – adjusted the survey to be representative of the UK population.
Their analysis showed that use of an e-cigarette at least once was found to be slightly more common than having smoked a conventional cigarette among all age groups, except those aged 15-16.
Just under six in every 100 children aged 10-11 (5.8 per cent) and 12 in every 100 of those aged 11-16 (12.3 per cent) had tried e-cigarettes. And this was irrespective of gender, ethnic background or family affluence.
Five in every hundred children (5.3 per cent) aged 10-11 who said they had ‘ever’ used an e-cigarette, had never smoked tobacco. But in the 15-16 age bracket, this had risen to eight in every 100.
But most teens who experimented with the devices didn’t report being regular users. Overall, just 1.5 per cent of 11-16 year olds said they used e-cigarettes at least once a month. According to Stirling University’s Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention champion, the new study “provides a valuable addition to the literature”.
“It reflects what we see in other surveys from across the world: that experimentation with e-cigarettes has grown as the products have become more widely available,” she said.
“However, importantly, it also shows that moving from trying an e-cigarette to regular use is very rare amongst non-smoking children.”
Nicola Smith, the charity’s senior health information officer, stressed the importance of monitoring e-cigarette use in younger people.
“Although the number of teenagers in Wales trying e-cigarettes seems to be similar to those trying tobacco, this doesn’t appear to have translated into regular use of e-cigarettes for most teens,” she said.
“It will be important to keep an eye on these trends and make sure the ban of sales to under 18s is enforced, given that nicotine use can be dangerous at this age. However, e-cigarettes are almost certainly far safer than tobacco and may help adults to quit smoking – which is the most important thing they can do for their health.”
The researchers suggest their findings don’t rule out a potential for wider appeal of e-cigarettes among youngsters, and stress that longer term studies will be needed to confirm their findings.