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A model smokes an electronic cigarette during the Beijing International Vapour Distribution Alliance Expo at China International Exhibition Center on July 23, 2015 in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty

China’s youth increasingly taking up vaping of e-cigarettes, despite health warnings and ban on sale to minors

  • E-cigarettes increasingly marketed towards younger consumers in China, raising health concerns
  • The South China Morning Post observed that it is relatively easy for under 18s to purchase devices and related products despite a ban on their sale to minors
At a toy shop inside a busy shopping centre in Shanghai’s fashionable Jingan Temple area, rows of brightly packaged vaping devices and fruit-flavoured e-liquids occupied an entire shelf in front of the cashier’s counter.

Several young visitors are poring over the colourful e-juices, coming in myriad flavours from lemon to watermelon.

Despite a sign requiring buyers to provide their ID cards to prove they’re above 18 and legally eligible to buy, a shop assistant said it’s OK if one didn’t have the certificate with them.

“We can tell by their appearance,” she says.

Vaping is increasingly popular among young Chinese consumers with marketing focusing on colourful and slick packaging and a wide range of flavours. Photo: Handout

Just as the store in eastern China is named, Cool Fun Trend Play, e-cigarettes are being labelled as fun and trendy in China and gaining growing popularity among young people, many of them minors.

Despite an online sale ban two years ago, these smokeless devices are still easily accessible and contributing to a worrying trend in adolescent vaping, recent studies showed.

A survey of over 2,400 middle school students, many aged between 12 and 18, in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Southern China and Chengdu, southwestern China, suggested that 4.5 per cent of them have tried vaping once, and 1.6 per cent reported vaping in the past 30 days.

Among those who tried to buy e-cigarettes in the past month, two thirds succeeded, according to the survey, part of a comprehensive study on vaping conducted by the Fudan University’s Health Communication Institute and released late last week.


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A 2019 survey issued by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention painted a grimmer picture nationally. About 2.7 per cent of junior middle school students across the country, usually aged between 12 and 15, used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, which was up by 1.5 percentage points from 2014.

Intended as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes to help quit people smoking, e-cigarettes were first invented by a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik in 2003.

They have been generally less popular in China, which still consumes the largest amount of tobacco, compared with North America and Europe, but they’re enticing many teenagers and young adults who have never smoked into vaping, said professor Yang Tingzhong, a smoke control expert from School of Medicine, Zhejiang University.

A worker tests an e-cigarette on the production line at Kanger Tech, one of China’s leading manufacturers of vaping products, on September 24, 2019 in Shenzhen, China. Photo: Getty

“E-cigarettes in China are mainly consumed by curious young people, because they’re new, cheap, beautifully packaged and have various flavours. But like combusted cigarettes, they contain nicotine too, which is harmful and addictive,” said Yang.

“Authorities are considering regulating vaping as they do smoking, and if so, e-cigarettes should never have the appealing packages they do now, and should be sold in specialty stores only,” he added.

Curiosity is one of the factors leading youths to use e-cigarettes, and their curiosity is “closely linked with the manufacturers’ marketing activities online and offline,” which usually convey a sense of “fun” and “youth”, the Fudan University study found.

Li Feng, a real property agent in Shanghai, said, “I was still in high school when I tried vaping. Honestly I was simply trying to make myself look cool.”


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“Nearly 10 years have passed by now and I have switched to regular cigarettes. I am aware of its harm to health, but it’s been one of the rare ways of mine to relax, so I haven’t thought of quitting so far,” he said.

To keep teenagers from vaping, the Chinese government banned retailers from selling vaping devices and e-liquids online in November 2019. It is also seeking to regulate the industry similarly to ordinary cigarettes, according to draft regulations issued for public comment in March this year.

However, in practice, it is common for offline stores not to implement age checks, and sales online have continued, mainly via WeChat, China’s most influential social media platform.

RLX Technology, the country’s largest e-cigarette brand, said it had worked with WeChat to ban over 2,100 illegal individual sellers offering its products on the platform between May and July.

An ad for RELX e-cigarette shop in Yichang, central China’s Hubei province. Photo: Getty

“WeChat sellers often attract consumers by offering ‘low prices’, ‘choice of different flavours’, and juices that ‘match various vape pens’, and they even sell to minors,” the company said in a written reply to the Post.

According to the Fudan University study, a third of 201 stores providing e-cigarettes in the three cities mentioned above offer delivery service, which is de facto online shopping and accessible to anyone who pays.

About 30 per cent of the stores have a warning “[e-cigarette] smoking is harmful to health”, and only a quarter have one saying “nicotine is addictive”, researchers found.

Online, among 104 websites dedicated to vaping, only 43 per cent have an age limit for users, and 76 per cent don’t have any health warnings.

Such “fashionable” consumption among young people follows a similar trend in the United States, the world’s biggest vaping market.

According to this year’s National Youth Tobacco Survey, 11.3 per cent of high school students and 2.8 per cent of middle school students in the US, totalling 2 million people, reported currently using e-cigarettes.