6 December 2023

Industry must step up to stop underage vaping

By Asli Ertonguc

You may have recently seen billboard or newspaper adverts calling for better regulation of the vaping industry, to help combat the levels of underage vaping and the sale of illegal vapes.

These are the work of BAT, the biggest vaping manufacturer based in the UK. As a FTSE 10 UK company, our call for the UK Government to regulate the industry more strongly may be seen by some as counter intuitive.

However, the UK government consultation on the Tobacco and Vapes Bill closes on 6 December. To remain silent now, as the vaping industry reaches an inflection point, would be to squander this opportunity.

There is widespread consensus that vaping has encouraged millions of smokers to switch. Last year’s influential Cochrane Review of 78 studies, examining 22,000 participants, found that that nicotine vapes led to higher levels of switching than traditional nicotine replacement therapies, such as patches and chewing gums.

But herein lies the salutary story of unintended consequences. A product that is providing an alternative for adult smokers now needs to be further safeguarded from the underaged.

Let us be clear: the underaged should not vape.

Yet there is considerable evidence to suggest that some of the ways vapes are being marketed (using dessert, sweet and soft drink flavour names, for example) and sold is helping drive underage experimentation that can lead to the take-up of vaping.  All stakeholders in the industry must step up and play their part in reducing youth access.

And, with policies to shape the industry’s future being discussed in Whitehall, this is a chance to reframe what should be done.

BAT, which invests £300m a year in R&D annually, with a global research hub in Southampton, has taken the unprecedented decision to go public in the UK, with what it proposes in response to the consultation in a bid to foster debate, bring real change and help the government achieve its ambition of making England smoke-free from 2030.

We believe the future of the vaping industry – and the delivery of a smoke-free future – are entwined and can be achieved by the introduction of more effective regulation that ensures the right balance is struck between promoting harm reduction and protecting the underaged.

For this reason, while we want flavours clearly aimed at underaged such as sweets, desserts and soft drinks prohibited, we do not want an outright ban on flavours such as fruit, which experts believe contribute to reductions in smoking rates.

Evidence submitted by Action on Smoking and Health to the UK Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee in July of this year highlighted several studies that reported an association between quitting smoking successfully and using non-tobacco flavoured e-liquids, as opposed to tobacco flavoured or unflavoured e-liquids.

While there needs to be focus on clamping down on manufacturers producing flavours uniquely appealing to the underaged, if we are to really tackle the issue of underage vaping, we need a joined up and comprehensive approach that also recognises the need for a licensing regime for vendors.

Those who sell vapes should be required to hold a retail licence, like that in place for alcohol. And this licence should be revoked if retailers are found to be selling to underaged or selling illegal products.

In addition, all retailers should be able to display vapes but only behind shop counters, rather than being displayed in shop windows or next to sweets.

And there should be significantly harsher fines for those caught selling vapes to children. Studies suggest fines as low as £26 have been issued to retailers for selling vapes to minors. Penalties of that size are no deterrent.

Finally, products shipped to the UK should be fully tested for compliance with UK laws in a recognised laboratory before they are allowed on to shop shelves.

Vaping has a significant role to play in encouraging adult smokers to switch. It is therefore vital that regulations are introduced to address forcefully the actions of irresponsible manufacturers and retailers.

It’s time for vaping to step up.

This article was sponsored by BAT UK. BAT UK is a UK subsidiary of BATBAT is building A Better Tomorrow™ by reducing the health impact of our business. From launching our first vaping device in the UK in 2013, non-combustible alternative nicotine products accounted for almost half of the revenue of BAT’s UK business in 2022.

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Asli Ertonguc is Western Europe Area Director at British American Tobacco.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.