UK Supermarket Chain Criticized for Displaying Vapes in Exactly the Right Place

    Where should vaping products be stocked in stores? That question was sharply raised in response to Sainsbury’s, a British supermarket chain, placing e-cigarettes and vaping liquids on its shelves next to nicotine replacement products like patches and gums.

    Although British political hostility to vaping is nowhere near that seen in the US, opposition inevitably followed. Conservative Member of Parliament Bob Blackman, chair of the Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health, blasted Sainsbury’s: “It’s wrong to have them on open shelves … We don’t know enough about the long-term effects of electronic cigarette use. There may well be dangerous chemicals in the e-liquid.”

    Blackman’s scaremongering misses the point. E-cigarette vapor does contain some potentially harmful chemicals—but at extremely low levels, often lower than those found in common medicines, typically exaggerated by opponents of tobacco harm reduction.

    The headline news, according to a landmark review on vaping conducted by Public Health England, is that overall, e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer than smoking.

    Professor Peter Hajek of Queen Mary University of London, an independent author of the review, said: “My reading of the evidence is that smokers who switch to vaping remove almost all the risks smoking poses to their health. Smokers differ in their needs and I would advise them not to give up on e-cigarettes if they do not like the first one they try. It may take some experimentation with different products and e-liquids to find the right one.”

    It is common sense to place vaping devices on shelves next to smoking cessation products, because that’s what they are. For millions of smokers who’ve unsuccessfully tried patches and gums, an e-cigarette is the next logical choice.  

    Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the UK. Thanks to relatively enlightened policies, including encouragement of vaping by the National Health Service, over 3 million Brits now vape. Of these, a majority are ex-smokers who have now switched to vaping entirely. A further 40 percent are smokers who are in the process of switching. This is a great victory for public health.

    In most stores, vaping products sit behind the counter, next to packages of cigarettes. That location perpetuates the false beliefheld by most Americansthat vaping is as dangerous as smoking.

    Blackman was also concerned that putting vaping products on open shelves makes them easily accessible to young people—even though you have to be 18 to buy them—and that the Sainsbury’s decision gives the impression that vaping is harmless. Compared to smoking cigarettesand remember, ex-smokers and smokers dominate the UK’s vaping marketvaping is less harmful by orders of magnitude.

    Public Health England created a short film that demonstrates the high levels of cancer-causing chemicals and tar inhaled by an average smoker over a month, compared to not smoking or using an e-cigarette. “I regularly give patients advice about quitting,” said said Dr. Rosemary Leonard, who is featured in the video. “And when I recommend e-cigarettes, I am often surprised to hear the misconceptions some people have about them… Vaping is much less harmful than smoking and I really hope this experiment will encourage smokers to make a quit attempt…”

    In most stores and pharmacies, vaping products sit behind the cashier’s counter, next to packages of cigarettes. That location perpetuates the false beliefone held by most Americansthat vaping is as dangerous as smoking. Stocking e-cigarettes on shelves, alongside boxes of nicotine patches and gums, helps clear up this damaging confusion, and sends the message to smokers that vaping is a viable way to quit.

    The outrage over where e-cigarettes are placed in stores is yet another battle in the vaping disinformation wars. In the States, things have gone in the opposite direction—the FDA has banned sales of e-cigarettes in convenience stores and gas stationsand public health will suffer accordingly.

    Across the Pond, a sensible spokesperson for Sainsbury’s explained: “Vaping products are for smokers looking for an alternative to cigarettes. A natural home for them is next to smoking cessation products.” Hopefully, more stores will follow the Sainsbury’s example.


    Photo by Helen Redmond

    • Helen Redmond

      Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the U.S. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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