My 12-year-old daughter was secretly vaping and I had no idea how to stop her

Sally*, 51, works in property development and lives in Barnes, south-west London with her fund manager husband, Tom*, 55, and their children Olivia*, 13, and Charles*, 12. 

The bright, plastic e-cigarettes are so ubiquitous that of course I had seen them, on sale in shops and discarded on streets. But I’d given them no thought until a year ago when vaping crept into our family life.

My daughter Olivia, then 12, came home from school one day telling me how children in her year were vaping in the loos. I was surprised, I had naively thought that vaping was just a way of stopping smoking. Yet here was my well-behaved, pre-teen daughter describing how that lunchtime she’d been beckoned into the disabled toilet by other Year 9s who’d worked out there was no CCTV. Olivia was curious. She’d watched a vanilla-watermelon flavoured vape being passed around four girls. Olivia – hyper germ-conscious since Covid – said it was “gross” they’d all shared the mouthpiece. So she’d slipped out of the cubicle without partaking.

I wasn’t thrilled this was happening at her smart private school, but I was pleased she’d been open with me. Don’t judge me, but at the time – trying to be “liberal” – I said “if ever you’re curious to try vaping, come and talk to me, maybe we can do it together”. That may seem irresponsible, but I’ve allowed my children a few sips of wine occasionally.

Experimenting in youth is normal, so I’ve never wanted to push things “underground”. Olivia rolled her eyes at my suggestion, saying, “that’s hardly cool Mum, I’ve no interest”.

We left it. But I noticed that four shops, within minutes of our home, sold vaping kits, and how the pretty packaging was cynically marketed at kids.

Six months after that conversation, I was in Olivia’s room sweeping my arm under her bed expecting to find the usual empty yoghurt pots and chocolate wrappers. Instead, there were two pen-sized vapes, one was even rainbow coloured. I felt incensed by the manufacturers, but also disappointed in my daughter. I left them both on top of her bed, so she’d see my discovery.

A pile of multi-coloured disposable vapes
This writer noticed how the colourful, aesthetically pleasing packaging was ‘cynically marketed at kids’ Credit: Getty Images

When she noticed them, I actually heard her groan, then insist she was “just looking after them” for her friend Ted. I didn’t really believe her but had no proof she was lying, and didn’t want to raise it with Ted’s mum, who I liked.

I let it go but became more vigilant. Olivia had £20 a week pocket money (supposedly for helping with chores); I feel sick now I know that’s enough for five disposable vapes.

Her bank card is linked to mine so every time she spends on it I receive an alert. There were regular payments to the corner shop for around £10, I hated feeling suspicious when Olivia said she was buying snacks and drinks for after art class. I never smelled anything on her, as you would with a cigarette, but she covered herself in cheap body spray, a classic masking ploy. I once commented her room smelled of strawberries, she’d said it was a candle.

Three months later, I had further evidence: two more vapes lurking under her bed. “You’ve hidden them in the same place!” I cried, incredulous. Initially she tried the “keeping for a friend excuse”, but with more pushing admitted to me that yes, she’d tried vaping with the friend, but it had made her dizzy and slightly sick. With more pushing, she finally admitted that it had indeed become a habit most days. Never at home or during lesson time, but outside the house and yes, in the school loos, too.

I confiscated the vapes along with her phone that night (the harshest punishment for any teen) and told my husband. “But where did she buy it?” he asked, not appreciating what I had already learned – just how readily available they were to kids.

Olivia didn’t cry or show any remorse. Her response was more of a… sigh. What the hell was next – because surely vaping is a gateway to drugs and alcohol? Now I’ve seen the deceit she’s capable of at 12 and I’m fearful.

If pupils are caught vaping at school they’re suspended. I didn’t want Olivia to get into trouble, so I spoke to the school more generally about vaping. They acknowledged it happened, and said they were planning to redesign the loos to make vaping there harder. Recently, Olivia told me that the school are also installing vape detectors in all toilets.

At home, I lectured Olivia about the health implications, and addiction risks, and showed her the news about a Belfast girl her age who’d been put in a coma because of the vaping damage to her lungs. I also explained how terrible this ever-lasting plastic was for the environment.

I have to believe this hit home, because it’s just impractical to stop pocket money now she’s 13 and needs some independence. She knows I’m watching her. Today, Olivia promises she doesn’t vape.

But I also feel furious that she’s a victim of an evil industry targeting the young. This should never have been allowed to happen. The ban for disposable vapes cannot come soon enough.

*All names have been changed

As told to Susanna Galton

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