France is planning to ban disposable vapes, or “puffs” as they’re known in the country, by the end of the year. The government is citing concerns over youth as justification—and claims that banning the vapes will help reduce smoking.
On September 3, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne described an impending “new national plan to fight against smoking with, in particular, the prohibition of disposable electronic cigarettes, the famous ‘puffs’ which give bad habits to young people.”
French anti-vaping campaigners, like their counterparts elsewhere, have framed colorful packaging and flavors—which are important to adults who switch from cigarettes—as ploys to entice youth.
The French government prohibited vaping in educational institutions back in 2017, but has now deemed this measure inadequate.
Loïc Josseran, president of the organization Alliance Contre le Tabac (Alliance Against Tobacco), has called the upcoming ban “a great victory for civil society” and endorsed the government’s rationale.
“These disposable e-cigarettes are acting as a gateway to smoking for young people,” he said. “It’s become an epidemic. It is terrible how the tobacco industry has set out to hook children.”
The now-familiar “gateway theory” is contradicted by large-scale evidence.
According to his organization, 13 percent of French teens aged 13-16 have at least tried disposable vapes.
But the now-familiar “gateway theory” is contradicted by large-scale evidence. As recent commentary in the International Journal of Drug Policy noted, if the theory accurately described the population-level relationship between youth vaping and smoking, you’d expect vaping increases to produce higher youth smoking rates. On the contrary, rises in youth vaping in the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand “have been accompanied by an accelerated decline in smoking.”
The fact that young people who vape are also more likely to smoke does not demonstrate causation, Dr. Colin Mendelsohn—coauthor of that commentary—explained in Filter, when youth who vape share factors that predispose youth to smoke.
“If there is a small ‘gateway effect’ for some youth,” he concluded, “it is certainly outweighed by a much larger number moving from smoking to vaping.”
An estimated 3 million people in France vape. But we know relatively little about them, or their motivations and preferences—including social, psychological or genetic factors that might shed light on a purported gateway effect for youth.
“Anti-puffers use this absence of data to claim that puffs are aimed solely at teenagers, and will then lead them to smoke. It’s a story told without basis, but picked up by media.”
“There is no data, at least not publicly available, on puff users in France,” Philippe Poirson told Filter. Poirson is vice president of Sovape, an independent French association that promotes tobacco harm reduction.
“This means we don’t know how many adults who have given-up smoking will be affected by the ban,” he said. “The government has not carried out a prior impact study.”
“Anti-puffers use this absence of data to claim that puffs are a product aimed solely at teenagers, and that puffs will then lead them to smoke,” Poirson continued. “It’s a story told without basis, but picked up by the mainstream media.”
In this context, he regrets that the announcement of the ban has generated “very little resistance.”
Something we do know is that France’s smoking rate is well above average for Western Europe. An estimated 34.6 percent of French adults smoke—a proportion that has actually risen since 2006. The country suffers over 73,000 annual smoking-related deaths.
Vapes are established as both much safer than cigarettes and an effective path to smoking cessation. And in other countries where disposables are under attack, advocates have pointed out that vapes of this kind are a particularly low-barrier, low-cost way for people who smoke to switch.
Claude Bamberger, who lives in Paris, smoked almost one pack of cigarettes daily for 20 years. But then he discovered “cigalike” disposable vapes—and over just one weekend, he told Filter, he “forgot to smoke” the cigarettes he had bought.
Bamberger subsequently became a volunteer at AIDUCE (Association Indépendante des Utilisateurs de Cigarette Electronique), an independent association of people who vape.
“I don’t see the point of banning disposable vapes meant for adults with a motivation about teens, who already can’t buy them legally,” he told Filter, “especially as they’re still buying them [anyway].”
“All you’re doing is moving the supply from regulated markets to illicit markets, and that’s a terrible outcome for public health.”
The environmental impact of single-use items is another major point of opposition to disposables, though advocates have suggested ways to mitigate this, and compared the impact to that of cigarettes.
On that point, Bamberger said Aiduce would like the government to educate people on the “already existing and financed recycling system, effective for small electronics and batteries” in French shops, supermarkets and even workplaces.
He added that although he’d like to remain “optimistic” about the ban—he does expect more environmentally friendly vapes to appear—he anticipates that it will in practice boost France’s illicit market of unregulated vapes.
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH, UK), has stated that unregulated products have “been found to contain all sorts of toxic chemicals banned in legal products, and there’s no way to ensure they’re properly recycled.”
This concern is echoed by Michael Landl, director of the World Vapers’ Alliance, who described the French ban as “dangerous” and misguided.
“When you ban a product people want, all you’re doing is moving the supply from regulated markets to illicit markets, and that’s a terrible outcome for public health,” he told Filter. “It defies logic to ban an alternative [to cigarettes] that is 95 percent less harmful.”
Landl concedes that issues around disposable vapes need to be addressed, but sees “intelligent regulation” as the answer, when prohibition means such a solution will never be found.
“However uncomfortable it may be, we have to acknowledge that harm reduction can start before the age of 18.”
Other European countries, such as Germany, Belgium and Ireland, have already announced similar bans, and the UK is reportedly preparing to follow suit. Youth-vaping arguments are always central to these moves.
Clive Bates, a tobacco harm reduction advocate and formerly the director of ASH, told Filter that most youth vaping is “experimental” and “frivolous.”
But it’s the more intensive vaping among youth who would otherwise be predisposed to smoke that we need to pay most attention to, he continued. For them, “youth vaping is beneficial.”
“However uncomfortable it may be,” he urged, “we have to acknowledge that harm reduction can start before the age of 18.”