The government’s proposals on single use vapes, flavours and packaging are misguided and will cost lives.
Created: 29 January 2024
The New Nicotine Alliance is extremely disappointed to hear that the UK government plans to ban single use vapes, restrict many flavours which can help people quit smoking, enforce plain packaging, and severely reduce the visibility of life-saving products.
The government’s response to the recent public consultation has ignored the most knowledgeable experts in tobacco control and put forth measures which will fail to tackle the issue of youth vaping and illicit sales, while also producing outcomes which will be damaging to public health.
The government states that single use “disposable” vapes have been a key driver behind a recent rise in youth vaping so have proposed a comprehensive ban on their sale. This fails to recognise that over 50% of sales of disposable devices are already counterfeit, non-compliant, or illegal. Prohibiting the products entirely will only affect legitimate, regulated traders while giving a boost to criminal enterprises who will now fully control a market with high demand.
There have been reports that the government is also planning to restrict flavours to just four. Namely, tobacco, mint, menthol, and “fruit”. As consumers repeat ad nauseam, the wide array of flavours currently available are vital for the success of vaping products to tempt people who smoke to switch and stay quit.
It is extremely concerning that ministers have given little or no thought to how their proposed actions will affect adult vapers and adults who currently smoke.
There is a valid argument that packaging should be regulated to ensure it is not blatantly child-friendly and likely to appeal to minors. However, it is facile and unsubstantiated to claim that any particular flavour is only developed to market to children. The most cited is bubblegum flavour, yet it has been a very popular flavour for adults since the early days of vaping; one of our trustees (who is 47), for example, uses it almost exclusively to avoid relapse to smoking.
It is important to recognize that fruit, dessert and candy flavours are the most popular category among adult vapers, with more than half of all vapers choosing them. Removing these flavours will weaken the appeal of vapes for smokers considering switching, while enforcing plain packaging will cement the already widespread incorrect assumption amongst the public that vaping is as or more harmful than smoking.
The result can only be less switching, more relapsing to smoking, and a further increase in misperceptions amongst the public. All these outcomes will cost a significant amount of lives.
We regret that the government has taken a naïve and simplistic approach to the problems it set out to tackle, without properly assessing the evidence, and dismissing the testimonies of experts in the field.
The government has ignored Fresh and Balance – a tobacco control organisation in the north east where smoking rates are the highest in England – which is opposed to banning single use vapes for fear of stoking an already rampant black market.
The government has ignored Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) – England’s foremost tobacco control charity – which opposes prohibition of single use vapes because they “may have a role to play for some groups of particularly disadvantaged smokers.” ASH’s consultation response also remarked that “It should be noted that many stop smoking services remain keen to have access to disposable vapes as part of the Government’s swap to stop programme specifically because of the benefits to some groups of smokers” and “the risk of unintended consequences is too great for us to support a ban.” It appears that the government has discarded this advice.
ASH also advocated caution on the issue of flavours, stating that “the risk of adverse unintended consequences is too great at the current time to implement ad hoc restrictions or bans on flavours.” This adds to the long tally of expert testimony that the government has dismissed.
The government has also ignored stop smoking services who recognise that the convenience and wide choice of flavours is useful for helping smokers to switch to a safer product, especially amongst heavier smokers and disadvantaged, homeless, and vulnerable groups. Disposable vapes don’t require refilling and recharging, so are easier to use. People who have problems with dexterity find them very useful and their low cost and convenience helps to prevent relapse to smoking.
When it comes to adult use, the more forward-looking stop smoking services regularly recommend smokers opt for a single use vape both as a cost-efficient entry-level product to help them quit, and for the purpose of trying out different flavours before opting for something more permanent. Banning the devices would close off this option for adult smokers seeking to quit. It would also affect older would-be quitters and those with disabilities, who say they find disposables easier to manage, without the added complication of filling a tank and changing coils.
Those who have already successfully quit using single use products would see their exit from smoking closed off and could relapse to combustible tobacco.
Just this week, a study by University College London, funded by Cancer Research UK, found that a ban on single use vapes would “affect 2.6 million adults” and “could have substantial unintended consequences for people who smoke.” It further warned that it would “discourage use of e-cigarettes among people trying to quit smoking and may induce relapse among those who have already used disposables to quit.” The government has paid no heed to this, either.
The government’s ill thought-out response has even ignored the spirit of its own independent tobacco review in 2022 which recommended that government “embrace the promotion of vaping as an effective tool to help people to quit smoking tobacco” and identified that “the alternative is far worse.” Banning vaping products, implementing plain packaging, and restricting flavours is the opposite of an embrace.
Worse still, it has also ignored its own Health and Social Care Committee which did not recommend a ban on disposable vapes, warning “The Government should approach the issue with caution … owing to the risk of unintended consequences such as increasing the supply of illegal, unregulated vapes.”
It is clear that single use vape devices are popular among young people. But the government has forgotten that 25 years ago the same demographic would have been initiating their nicotine use from smoking instead of vaping. We are seeing a generational shift of nicotine use from burning tobacco to using a far safer delivery device and if, as they will, adolescents are to experiment with anything, is it not far better that it be vaping than combustible cigarettes?
In summation, to satisfy a populist and largely unenlightened panic, the government’s proposals fail to consider the disadvantage they will cause to adult ex-smokers and the predicted rise in illicit supplies. They have been compiled without due reference to its own expert advisers, and without regard to the inevitable increase in supply of illicit products. It ignores the certain damaging effect on public health which will result from fewer adult smokers switching and vapers of all ages relapsing to combustible tobacco.
Worst of all, the UK is quite rightly lauded for its world-leading policy of guiding smokers towards lower-risk nicotine alternatives such as e-cigarettes. These proposals not only risk trashing our proud reputation amongst credible global public health academics but will also lead to promotion of ignorance and poor policy in other countries which will cost lives worldwide.
The government has decided on policies which will only exacerbate the problems it is seeking to solve. The focus should be on better enforcement of the comprehensive laws we already have and a robust crackdown on those who are contravening them.