Collapsing kids. A 'toxic' trend. And parents who don't know or don't care


"A child somewhere in this country is going to die because of a vape. It’s only a matter of time."

It's a stark warning, but it could save children's lives, one Greater Manchester headteacher believes.

Westhoughton High School head Neil Coe's words come after four different pupils at the same school were admitted to hospital. The youngsters had inhaled vapes thought to have been 'spiked' with dangerous substances, including THC and spice.

Vaping habits among schoolchildren have become cause for concern across the country in the last few years. A recent MEN investigation showed just how easy it is to get your hands on illegal, unregulated and dangerously potent vapes in Manchester.

And the situation in our schools, according to Mr Coe, is bleaker than ever.

The Westhoughton High School head says that pupils are so desperate to use their vapes that he's had to post teachers outside bathrooms around the clock in an attempt to block the youngsters. Even then, he says, it's 'almost impossible' for teachers to stop the habit.

READ MORE: 'We have parents asking if their kids can vape in exams - where will it end?'

Westhoughton High is by no means the only school facing these issues. Glyn Potts, headteacher at Saint John Henry Newman Catholic College in Oldham, told the Manchester Evening News how he has watched as vapes have become part of a daily routine for many young people.

A pupil at his college was hospitalised after they collapsed from just one hit of a modified vape last year. It later transpired the pen had contained spice - a synthetic drug known for the 'zombie-like' state it induces in users.

In the wake of that, Mr Potts said he 'prays' there won't be a fatality - but unless something big changes, he 'can't see it not happening'.

Meanwhile, at Westhoughton High, Mr Coe's fears arose after four students at his Greater Manchester school had to be rushed to hospital with skyrocketing heart rates after using vapes.

Westhoughton High, like many schools across the country, has been forced to crackdown on vapes. The first major incident the school faced was before Christmas where three students were hospitalised in one day after vaping off school grounds. Just weeks later, another pupil was then hospitalised after vaping while at school, according to the concerned head.

It is thought that the vapes being used by students in these two incidents could have been laced with harmful substances, says the headteacher. Often, he adds, their parents had ‘no idea’ their children vaped at all.

But in some worrying cases, Mr Coe fears that parents are supplying their children with vape pens.

It's an awful dilemma for schools - should they stand back as parents buy these products for their children, or leave them to the alternative - where youngsters try to get hold of vapes themselves -opening them up to potentially dangerous, unchecked and possibly spiked pens.

Westhoughton High School headteacher Neil Coe
Glyn Potts, headteacher of Saint John Henry Newman Catholic College -Credit:Joel Goodman

The concern is rising across the country. The government has announced that it is planning to introduce a ban on the sale of disposable vapes in England, Scotland and Wales.

The measure, which is expected to come into force at the end of 2024 or the start of 2025, is designed to tackle the rise in young people vaping. But existing laws are already being flouted.

An MEN investigation found last month that vapes that are causing concern among police, local authorities and industry experts are easily available over the counter - in designs and flavours that could be attractive to underage people. These vapes are illegal and unregulated – while the number of puffs they promise is believed to be indicative of illegal nicotine levels.

“We had one incident before Christmas where three children who vaped outside school premises were hospitalised. I thought it would only be a matter of time before it happened in school – then we had one incident inside the school after Christmas,” Mr Coe told the M.E.N. The children involved in the incidents ranged from just 12 to 15 years old, he said.

“Yes, I’m a headteacher and leader of a school so I care because of my job, but I’m also a dad although my children are much younger. It’s a really frightening thing to be facing.

“These children are being taken to hospital with heart rates of 150 to 200 beats per minute. They have no idea what they’ve taken or what made them like this.

“Informally, I’ve been told that these incidents could have been because of THC or spice. If you take a vape from somebody, you don’t know what’s in it, and some children are sharing vapes and passing them round.

“One child knew he wouldn’t be able to buy a vape, so they approached someone less reputable and it had something in it.”

It is illegal to sell vapes to anyone under 18 in the UK - but recent figures show the number of children using vapes in the past three years has tripled, with more than one in five children aged between 11 and 17 having tried vaping in 2023, according to Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). Vapes contain high concentrations of nicotine, can be bought at off licences and corner shops, and can be modified to contain illicit substances.

Illegal Vapes that were bought in Manchester
Westhoughton High School headteacher Neil Coe -Credit:Handout

“It’s really serious and it’s a difficult thing to go out to parents with," Mr Coe said. "You don’t want to sound like there’s a massive substance misuse issue in schools – there isn’t.

“We’re talking about a very small minority of children, but we’ve seen some children that have been influenced by those having no awareness of the dangers, having never been involved with a vape before and can end up hospitalised. Their parents have no idea they vaped.”

A person vaping
Illegal vapes that were bought over the counter in Manchester -Credit:ABNM Photography

The headteacher feels he could be ‘almost powerless’ to stop vaping in schools, as monitoring the use of the devices is harder than ever.

“The police have followed up on the vaping and the hospitalisation incidents, and have been really supportive," he said. "We have suspensions in place for anyone that vapes on school site, we’ve had to take a hard disciplinarian line with that.

“But toilet cubicles are now, quite rightly, floor to ceiling. Our school, like most schools, is fitted with CCTV cameras but they’re not in the toilet cubicles.

“If you’re a young person with a vape in their bag you could go in a cubicle and the school is almost powerless to stop that happening. We’ve had to really up the monitoring of the toilets in school. We used to just supervise them at break and lunch like most schools, and give out passes for use during lessons.

“Whereas now those toilets are monitored all day. It’s expensive on resource to have senior staff standing outside a toilet block all day, but I’ve got to keep my children safe.”

Mr Coe is having to educate both parents and children alike that they could be affected by vaping – and dangerous complications from vapes. Over two million illicit vapes were seized across England by Trading Standards from 2022 to 2023.

“We’ve written to parents twice, I want parents to be concerned in some way – we’re concerned. I want to make it clear to parents that some of the children who have fallen ill are children of parents who thought they didn’t vape,” he said.

“I don’t want parents to think ‘that wouldn’t be my child’.

“Those children returned from hospital the same day, but there has been some serious learning from those children. Other children know it’s happening but might think it won’t happen to them.

“I was alarmed by the number of children who have said to me ‘it’s fine, it’s just vape fluid, it’s clear’. That was the extent of the analysis of what they’re putting in their bodies.”

'It’s really serious and it’s a difficult thing to go out to parents with.' -Credit:PA
'It’s really serious and it’s a difficult thing to go out to parents with.' -Credit:PA

And while some parents have no idea their child is vaping, other parents are actively supplying their children with vapes - products that can contain 12 to 16 times more nicotine than a cigarette.

“We have had some parents ask for vapes that we’ve confiscated back so that they can give them back to the child," he said. "We had one parent who asked a teacher for a confiscated vape to be returned and then gave it back to the child in front of that teacher," Mr Coe added.

"Now our policy is not to return them and destroy any vapes we confiscate. Some of these children have an addiction to vaping, that’s the reality. So you potentially end up saying to parents, buy the vapes for them so it’s from a more ‘reputable’ place, and there are parents who are worried that if they don’t buy vapes for their children, they’ll get them anyway from somewhere more dangerous.

“It goes against everything I believe in, I don’t want children vaping, but getting a vape illegally could make them fall really ill. It’s a catch 22.”

Earlier this year, the government announced a public consultation on a range of policies aimed to tackle youth vaping, including regulating vape packaging and flavours to ensure devices are not being targeted towards children. Closer to home, Mr Coe is holding special assemblies and circulating educational material about the consequences vaping can have on young people for his students, as well as the monitoring measures.

But the headteacher fears his efforts could be futile – and legislation could come too late.

A year ago, stark warnings were already being issued from Greater Manchester health chiefs about the danger of fake 'THC' or 'cannabis oil' vapes that were circulating in the region which may have been producing a highly toxic gas due to the presence of vitamin E acetate - an oily chemical which can be added to the liquid to make it go further.

Between 2019 and 2020 there were nearly 3,000 hospital admissions and 68 deaths associated with vitamin E acetate in THC vape pens in the USA. At the time, Sarah Price, chief officer for population health and inequalities for NHS Greater Manchester, said: “It’s important that the public, particularly young people, understand the dangers using these illegal vaping products can have on their health. I would also encourage parents and carers of young people to discuss the risks of vaping with them.

“We know that many people use vapes as an aid to help them stop smoking cigarettes however, THC vapes are illegal and so their contents go unregulated. Therefore, it is impossible to know if what you are inhaling is safe, so the safest thing you can do is not to take them."

Neil Coe says he wants to know he has done everything he can, including speaking to the M.E.N., to raise awareness and try to stem the tide of children with spiralling addictions that could eventually prove fatal if they're unknowingly handed a poisoned vape.

“If you asked children to share lollies, they wouldn’t because they know the hygiene problems it creates, but they would with vapes. Children have involved themselves in risky behaviour since the beginning of time, all that changes it the vehicle of risk. When I was at school, it was smoking and drinking – this is another thing where children have the chance to step outside the rules.

“Legislation won’t move fast enough and there’s always a risk it will force people into the illegal market where the risk is so much higher because there’s no quality assurance. As a school, we’re designed to educate young people and parents.

“Children like to employ risky behaviour but this is more significant and could ultimately end a life. You just have no idea what that mix of chemicals is – a child somewhere in this country is going to die because of a vape. It’s only a matter of time.

“We’re just doing everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen here.”

Greater Manchester Police has been approached for comment.