British Government to Ban Disposable Vapes, Restrict Flavors

    Disposable vapes will be banned in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced during a January 29 school visit. A press release framed the decision as “part of ambitious government plans to tackle the rise in youth vaping and protect children’s health.”

    “The long-term impacts of vaping are unknown and the nicotine within them can be highly addictive, so while vaping can be a useful tool to help smokers quit, marketing vapes to children is not acceptable,” Sunak said. “That is why I am taking bold action to ban disposable vapes—which have driven the rise in youth vaping.”

    The policy package, according to the press release, will also see “new powers … introduced to restrict flavors which are specifically marketed at children and ensure that manufacturers produce plainer, less visually appealing packaging.” Parliament is believed to be very likely to pass the measures.

    Tobacco harm reduction experts have condemned the moves as backward steps in what had been known as one of the world’s most vape-friendly countries. Recent research suggests that large numbers of adults will return to smoking or turn to the illicit vape market as a consequence.

    The announcements follow a public consultation on youth vaping, launched by the government in October 2023. According to the press release, the consultation found “overwhelming support … for a disposable vape ban, with nearly 70 percent of parents, teachers, healthcare professionals and the general public supportive of the measure.”

    A controversial plan to ban cigarette sales to anyone born after 2008, part of a bid to make the country “smoke-free,” was also announced in October.

    It seems a long time ago now that Sunak’s Conservative government won plaudits from harm reductionists by unveiling, in April 2023, an unprecedented plan to provide free vape starter kits to one million people who smoke.

    Disposable vapes have been in the policy crosshairs for some time. Proponents of a ban have blamed them for an increase in youth vaping and for environmental harms. Opponents have pointed out that they represent a low-cost, low-barrier option for people switching from cigarettes.

    Vape flavors have been the subject of similar debates—blamed for enticing youth, although they have key importance for many adults seeking to quit smoking.

    “Disposable vapes are also particularly widely used among disadvantaged groups.”

    “The proportion of young people who vape has risen dramatically over recent years,” acknowledged Dr. Sarah Jackson, principal research fellow at the University College London Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group. “Most use disposable vapes, which are cheap, attractive, and easy to use.”

    However, she told Filter, “The proposed ban on disposables might seem like a straightforward solution to curbing the rise in youth vaping, but there are significant challenges to making a ban work. These products are very widely used—and not just by young people who have never smoked.”

    “An estimated 1.2 million adults who currently smoke and a further 744,000 who previously smoked currently use disposable vapes,” Jackson continued, citing new UCL research of which she was the lead author. “A ban could have substantial unintended consequences for these groups, such as discouraging people who smoke from switching completely to vaping, which is much less harmful, or triggering relapse among those who have recently quit smoking using disposables.”

    “Disposable vapes are also particularly widely used among disadvantaged groups,” she noted. “Evidence shows e-cigarettes are an effective tool for helping people to stop smoking, but some smokers, such as those with learning difficulties or severe mental illness, can find it hard to use refillable products straight away.”

    More new research, commissioned by the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA) and released earlier in January, found that over one million people would either return to smoking or purchase illicit vapes in the event of bans of disposables and flavors.

    Out of 2,000 adults who participated in the research, all of whom either currently smoked or recently switched entirely to vapes, 38 percent gave these answers.

    “It is incredibly important that actions to limit illicit trade and associated [harms] do not curtail the public health benefits of adults vaping rather than smoking,” IBVTA Chair Marcus Saxton told Filter.

    Around one third of the UK vape market already comprises illicit products, according to Saxton. These may contain riskier ingredients and be sold without age checks. The likelihood of “turbo-charging” this illicit market is why British charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has opposed a disposables ban.

    “There is a risk that if restrictions go too far, they will take away what should have had a really positive effect for smoking cessation and will just become an inevitable boon to a significant and growing illegal trade,” Saxton said, speaking before the new announcement.

    “Strongly restrictive measures on vapes will inevitably do more harm than good.”

    Tobacco harm reduction advocate Clive Bates, the former director of ASH, told Filter that such consequences of bans “shouldn’t surprise anyone with any policy experience.”

    Bates, who was also speaking when the latest policies were anticipated, but not yet confirmed, said new vape restrictions would result in three main effects: boosting the illegal supply of banned products; users and suppliers “develop[ing] workarounds, like mixing their own flavors;” and an increase in smoking.

    “However well intentioned, strongly restrictive measures on vapes will inevitably do more harm than good,” he continued. “Trying to tackle perceived problems with vaping by restricting supply will never work while the demand continues. We can’t make the demand disappear.”

    In a blog post published after the government’s announcement, Bates crunched the numbers to conclude that “about nine times as many adults compared to teens will be affected by the ban.”

    “And many of these young people will be very occasional users,” he wrote. “Adult use [of the vapes to be banned] will be dominated by people who smoke or previously smoked—and this measure puts them at risk of serious diseases.”

    The role of vape flavors in people quitting smoking has been established by numerous studies. The new IBVTA research, Saxton said, further illustrated how both flavors and disposables are “really important” in tobacco harm reduction, given the “ready accessibility” and “ease” of single-use vapes.

    “Exemptions for certain groups or settings should be considered to give vulnerable smokers the best chance.”

    “Flavored vapes’ popularity and efficacy in helping people stop smoking is uncontested,” Saxton said, adding that only a minority of people who vape choose tobacco flavors, while the majority opt for fruit flavors. “Sending those vapers back to tobacco or menthol, or even a limited range of fruit flavors, would present a serious risk of relapse to tobacco smoking for a lot of adults that are now vaping instead.”

    Saxton said the “responsible industry” had already been taking steps to address youth-vaping and environmental concerns, through a “code of conduct” and growing recycling provisions.

    But the UK has joined a number of other European countries that have taken recent steps to ban disposable vapes, including France, Germany, Belgium and Ireland.

    Assuming the UK ban goes ahead, Dr. Jackson told Filter, “it will be important to encourage and support current and ex-smokers who use disposables to switch to other e-cigarettes rather than going back to just smoking tobacco. Exemptions for certain groups or settings should also be considered to give vulnerable smokers the best chance of quitting.”



    Photograph (cropped) by TBEC Review via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales.

      Kiran’s fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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