People who vape in the United Kingdom are expected to be hit with a substantial new tax. Tobacco harm reduction advocates see it as a backward step, reducing the incentive to purchase safer products instead of cigarettes, in a country known for years of progressive vape policies.
Vaping is a key part of the national smoking cessation strategy. In April 2023, the UK’s governing Conservative Party pledged to give free vape starter kits to 1 million people who smoke. But later in the year, the government divided opinion with “smoke-free generation” plans including not only a ban on cigarette sales to anyone born after 2008, but a raft of potential vape restrictions, subject to a public consultation.
Now, the government is expected to unveil the new vape tax in March, when the national budget is announced. It would be the first such levy since vapes have been on the UK market.
The tax will reportedly increase the cost of e-liquids by at least 25 percent. The rationale is to deter youth from taking up vaping. But opponents point out that it’s liable to deter people who smoke from switching.
“If vaping was just as expensive as smoking, or close to it, it would have lost lots of points for me to consider it.”
One British vaper tweeted in response to my question about this that “to be led into the false notion that UK government supports vaping and then to pull the rug out from all the 4.5 million smokers who have switched is just deplorable.”
Another, Wesley Vet, used to smoke 30 cigarettes a day. He told Filter he “accidentally” quit because his habit was “financially crippling,” and he was looking for a way to reduce costs.
“If vaping was just as expensive as smoking, or close to it, it would have lost lots of points for me to consider it,” he said. “People who currently smoke, unfortunately, will be less likely to switch with this deterrence and instead keep smoking, which we know will kill most of them and will increase the pressure on our health care system.”
Other countries, such as Italy and Germany, as well as numerous US states, impose vape taxes. Past research has indicated that such taxes can increase cigarette sales. The Irish government recently postponed plans to tax vapes over fears it would discourage switching.
“The whole art of policymaking for tobacco and nicotine products is about understanding the interaction between smoking and safer alternatives like vaping,” Clives Bates, a British advocate and former director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH, UK), told Filter. He accused the UK government of losing sight of what matters and playing politics with people’s lives.
“On top of the negative health effects, a vape tax will have the effect of protecting the cigarette trade while piling tax bureaucracy burdens onto legitimate small businesses,” he added.
Bates concluded that the tax will inevitably swell the illicit vapes market, which operates without age restrictions—thereby undermining the supposed goal of reducing underage vaping.
“The result can only be a decline in informed decision-making amongst not only adults who vape or smoke, but youth as well.”
Despite British institutions like the Royal College of Physicians and the National Health Service endorsing vapes as harm reduction, a UK survey found in January that 52 percent of respondents wrongly believed vapes are as harmful as cigarettes or worse.
Martin Cullip, a British tobacco harm reduction advocate who smoked for 33 years before switching to vapes, told Filter that the new tax will perpetuate this myth.
“Applying taxation on vapes will undoubtedly accelerate misconceptions amongst the public, who will assume it is because they are proven to be harmful to health,” said Cullip, a fellow of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center, who has written for Filter.
“The result,” he concluded, “can only be a decline in informed decision-making amongst not only adults who vape or smoke, but youth as well.”