CHILDREN as young as 11 are “experimenting” with vapes, the director of public health in Gwent has said.

Professor Tracy Daszkiewicz, director of public health and strategic partnerships at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, has spoken to the Argus about her first young people’s report.

The annual report - titled Our future, our voice - uses data and accounts from children to paint a picture of the health challenges facing younger generations in Gwent.

It says one in five people aged 10 to 18 have tried vaping, while one in 25 have tried cannabis.

Prof Daszkiewicz, who was director in Wiltshire at the time of the Salisbury nerve agent poisonings, suggests a change in focus from the issues of smoking and vaping to the overarching challenge of nicotine addiction.

“We’re starting to see different patterns of behaviours but we need to do a lot more to understand them,” she said.

“What we need to do is prevent nicotine addiction because once it’s in place, it’s a lifelong challenge for people.

South Wales Argus: Prof Daszkiewicz says the priority is to 'prevent nicotine addiction'Prof Daszkiewicz says the priority is to 'prevent nicotine addiction' (Image: ABUHB)

“There’s no doubt peer pressure plays a part but I think the biggest challenge is what we call commercial determinants - how things are marketed and seem attractive to certain groups. We need to try and disrupt that so people aren’t attracted into harmful behaviours.”

As of 2021/22, one in eight five-year-olds in Gwent were living with obesity. Prof Daszkiewicz describes the issue of childhood obesity as a “very sensitive” one where people are wrongly subjected to stigma.

“Children are growing up in very different environments with ultra-processed foods readily available that weren’t there when I was a child,” she said.

She suggests eating food with the fewest ingredients and using items in their “natural forms” as they would have been grown in a field or fallen from a tree.

Responding to the fact that, according to the most recent data, only 38 per cent of children between the ages of 11 and 16 walk or cycle to school, she also says things are “very different” on the road.

“I think people tend to live further away than they used to, and roads are naturally busier,” she said.

“A lot of parents are seeing their children into school before a busy day’s work and using the car is probably the most convenient for their lives, so there’s all sorts of factors in there.

“The more we can build activity into our lives, the better. If children are getting that walk or cycle to school in the morning, that’s obviously giving them a great start - but it’s got to be safe and roads are incredibly busy.”

In 2022, 86 children aged 15 and under were seriously injured or killed on Gwent's roads.

Prof Daszkiewicz says the slower 20mph speed limit is “essential” around schools.

READ MORE: Fewer crashes on Gwent's roads since government slashed speed limit to 20mph

“We see a lot of speed limit controls, even on motorways these days, down to 50mph, to help with things like air quality," she added. “Children’s safety is obviously a key priority, but the climate change factors are another area.

“Thinking more broadly about the way we use cars, the amount we use them, and when there’s other alternatives, is key for that wider conversation. It’s a huge, far-reaching debate from a public health point of view.”


The report, published at the end of February, also considers the lasting impacts of the Covid pandemic on the younger generations.

“We’re starting to see early impacts in children in the early parts of their school careers, who were probably at home during their infant years, and how they socialise. They obviously missed that really vital time where you form early relationships that often stay with you for life," the professor said.

“We’re starting to see really interesting issues such as hand strength - children being able to hold pens, in years three and four, because they missed that vital development.

“Children were learning differently. So much more of it was online and those normal activities of drawing, painting and colouring-in weren’t happening.

“We’ve also seen disruption with teenagers who have missed their GCSEs but then sat exams at A Level and haven’t had that vital practice.

“Children are possibly more introverted because they missed out on that early socialisation and have found it really hard to go back to school after such long periods at home. There are also different levels of anxiety.

South Wales Argus: Children may be more introverted and anxious because of the pandemic lockdownsChildren may be more introverted and anxious because of the pandemic lockdowns (Image: Pixabay)

“But again, this is such early days. We’re still very much in the shadow of the pandemic and we would need to be looking at this over the next three to five decades to really understand the long-term impacts on this cohort of children.”

Asked whether the lockdowns themselves qualified as a public health crisis, the professor said: “I think when you're dealing with an infectious disease, particularly a new one, it's absolutely right we do everything we can to ensure we disrupt the transmission of disease.

“That has got to be the priority in the beginning and, at the time, those decisions were absolutely made to do the best we could to keep people safe.”

The report also makes the shocking revelation of a six-year gap in life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas in Gwent.

The professor points to another finding - that, in certain areas, people are spending the last 19 years of their life in poor health caused by preventable illnesses.

“We need to address how we can keep people healthier for longer, so we can make sure we live our long lives in the best health we can,” she said.

“It’s about education aspirations, safe, warm homes, economic prosperity - the opportunity to earn a living. It’s also about making sure we eat the healthiest possible diet that’s available to us - we can’t always talk about choice because choice isn’t always equal.

“People have to make the best decisions they can in their circumstances. We need to make sure people’s circumstances are more equal - understand where there’s greater harm and do more, faster, to help people who need extra support.

“If we can stop children experimenting with nicotine at the age of 11, we will have fewer people addicted at 65, when we will see those preventable causes play out.

“This is about engaging everybody around a conversation about children - teachers, parents, carers, aunts, grandads, neighbours - what can we do to give our children the very best future?”