Researchers have called for urgent action to control the promotion and sale of e-cigarettes to children after their research revealed a high proportion of use among teenagers.

In a survey of more than 16,000 14- to 17-year-olds in the North West of England, one in five (19%) said they had tried or purchased e-cigarettes.

The research, published by scientists in BMC Public Health, found that prevalence was highest among smokers, at 75.8% for those smoking more than five cigarettes a day.

However, nearly 16% of teenagers that had accessed e-cigarettes have never smoked conventional cigarettes.

Teenagers who drank alcohol were significantly more likely to have accessed e-cigarettes than non drinkers, at 23.7% compared to 9.3%.

Lead author Karen Hughes said the results showed that teenagers view e-cigarettes as a recreational substance rather than a smoking cessation tool.

“E-cigarette access is also associated with specific alcohol access patterns, including self-purchase of alcohol in off-licensed premises and the recruitment of proxy purchasers from outside such premises,” she added.

“Thus, high risk teenagers that access e-cigarettes are likely to already be familiar with mechanisms for avoiding age restrictions on substances.”

She said the findings highlight the urgent need for controls on e-cigarette sales to children. “The longer such controls are delayed, the greater the number of children likely to want to access e-cigarettes illicitly once a ban on sales to children is imposed,” Hughes added.