UK set to ban disposable vapes

What is the thinking, and why now?
15 September 2023

Interview with 

Linda Bauld, University of Edinburgh


A man vaping


Reports this week suggest the UK government is preparing to announce a ban on single use vapes to prevent harmful outcomes on public health and the environment. Refillable vapes, which are less popular among young people, will still be available to buy. The UK has followed the lead of countries like France, where disposable vapes have been banned for some months, rather than take the approach of countries like the US, where regulations on e-cigarettes are less stringent.

Critics of the policy have voiced concern that the illicit market for more dangerous vapes will now grow. To gain a better understanding of the thinking behind the UK’s decision, and to provide some insights on vaping policy in comparable nations, James Tytko spoke with Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh…

Linda - So the reasons why this is happening now are actually on two fronts. The first one is a concern about youth vaping. So experimentation with vaping has gone up 50% on the basis of one survey between 2022 and 2023 amongst teenagers. Regular use hasn't risen much, but it's still pretty high. It's about 7.6%. And when you look at why that big rise has happened, you see it's driven by the category of products, disposable vapes. Of all teenagers who vape at all, in 2021, only 7.7% in Great Britain said they used a disposable vape. And that's gone up to 69% in 2023. And these are products that are not legal to be sold to under 18s. And then the second big, and equally important argument is an environmental one. So the lithium polymer batteries that are used in popular disposable e-cigarettes are a risk to the environment if they can't be recharged and reused, which is the case with disposables. There's also emissions from single use vapes and perhaps most importantly for these disposable ones is the packaging and the materials are difficult to recycle and they're also not being recycled correctly, either by users or indeed by the retailers who are not set up to receive them back and get them recycled.

James - The last time you spoke to us on this topic, you outlined some of the policy instruments available to the government to help get vaping, especially among young people, under control. The four P's. You can take action on the product, perhaps by making the vapes weaker. The place, or where kids can access them or buy them. The price, through tax more obviously, or the promotion or marketing. The 'P' you didn't mention is prohibition, which has been what's been settled on. Why an outright ban on disposable vapes rather than a tax or a ban on the colours and flavours that make them attractive to children?

Linda - I think the reason why a ban is being discussed is these environmental issues are really causing a lot of noise, and that's different from the other categories. So, in general, with all vaping products, you could apply the four P's to try and reduce youth use. You could do that on disposables as well. But I think the way that it's being discussed, certainly at England level and indeed elsewhere in the UK, is actually not getting rid of all vaping products. So we know they're very helpful for smokers who are trying to quit. What the government's doing is zooming in on this particular category, which has not exactly emerged from nowhere, but has completely transformed the market within a couple of years. Almost all these products come from China, a small number of companies. The other thing is international. So France is banning disposables, for example, and a number of other countries are just looking at this category of product in particular. So it might be that actually the government just thinks in contrast to the other P's, which are quite complex to legislate on and can be done in stages, they think, well, we'll just deal with this category outright.

James - You mentioned evidence shows vape products can be very effective in helping smokers to quit. It's proven to be less harmful than smoking, although we don't really know the long-term effects. Public health officials must be pretty confident that this ban isn't going to push people who've been using single use vapes to more harmful tobacco products.

Linda - I think they are pretty confident. And the reason for that, again, is backed up by these cross-sectional surveys that we have. So I mentioned that figure of 69% of all teenagers who vape at all vape a disposable. The proportion of adults who vape a disposable has risen a lot. It's about a third, just under a third, 31% in 2023, but it's not the majority. So most adults who vape are ex-smokers or current smokers trying to quit. And about half of them use these refillable tanks. That's the most popular category. So think of the government's thinking as well, if we take action on the product that seems to be particularly a problem for young people, we've still got a bunch of other cartridge refillable tank systems, vaping pipes, which they're not going to remove from the market. And, for adult smokers, it means they still have a choice.

James - There are concerns that I've read doing the rounds that the current black market for vapes, where products currently contain much higher levels of nicotine than are legal, that's set to grow as a result of this ban. Could we be in danger here of exposing people to more harm?

Linda - Yeah. So this concerns me. That's why I think, if I was legislating, I wouldn't necessarily go for an outright ban. I'd try a slightly more sophisticated approach. First, I'd start with price. Some of these disposables are as cheap as £1.99. So the illicit market is a genuine concern. The first concern is we already have it. We know that trading standards, test purchasing, and also getting devices from a shop and then taking them back to the lab have shown that there are already many products in the market that are not complying with the EU tobacco products directive and the way that was transposed into UK law. So we have consumer standards, they're not being followed. The second reason it concerns me is there's a historical precedent for this. So in the US a number of years ago, we had what was called the EVALI outbreak, which was contraband, illicit vaping products - with mostly cannabis vaping - containing vitamin acetate manufactured by a small number of factories, companies getting around the legal system. And actually there were youth deaths. Young people died in the US as a result of these illicit products. So if we're going to have a ban, the government needs to take equal action to address the illicit trade. Otherwise, I think we're in trouble.

James - Linda, thank you very much.

Linda - Thank you.


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