The government of the United Kingdom is pressing ahead with its plan to create a generation without legal access to tobacco and cigarettes. Its proposed Tobacco and Vapes Bill was formally introduced in the King’s Speech to Parliament on November 7.
The tobacco plan, unveiled in October, is controversial in itself; people currently under 15 would never be able to buy cigarettes legally, ultimately leading to full prohibition. But the government’s bill also allows the possibility of new vape taxes and restrictions, as it promises to crack down on youth vaping.
On October 12, the government launched a public consultation on youth vaping. Participation is open to UK residents of any age, with “teenagers, parents, teachers, medical professionals, academic experts and others” invited to submit opinions and experiences. The consultation period ends on December 6.
The government “is committed to clamping down on vapes being promoted to children while ensuring adults who want to quit smoking remain supported,” it stated. Measures on the table include “proposals to restrict child-friendly flavors and bright coloured packaging,” as well as regulating point-of-sale displays, new sales taxation, and a potential ban on disposable vapes.
“The focus should be on reducing smoking as deeply and rapidly as possible. That means concentrating on adult smoking in the poorest communities.”
However, when regular underage smoking has already fallen to an all-time low, some believe the government’s “smoke-free generation” pledge has lost its way. The UK suffers around 76,000 annual smoking-related deaths, and 6.4 million people were still smoking in 2022—but overwhelmingly adults, not children.
“The focus should be on reducing smoking as deeply and rapidly as possible, focusing on the people most at risk,” tobacco harm reduction advocate Clive Bates told Filter. “That means concentrating on adult smoking in the poorest communities.”
“But on the basis of a moral panic about youth vaping,” he continued, “the government is putting all its progress to date at risk with new taxes and bans on flavors and disposables.”
Much research indicates the importance of vape flavor options to adults who are seeking to switch from cigarettes, many of whom may prefer to avoid the constant reminder of smoking that tobacco-flavored vapes could present.
Other research has suggested that vape taxes can increase cigarette sales—which makes sense when you consider that people typically substitute one for the other.
The debate over disposable vapes, meanwhile, has been gaining steam in the UK for some time.
“Disposable use is higher among disadvantaged groups that have higher rates of smoking and typically find it harder to quit. A ban would disproportionately impact these groups.”
Dr. Sarah Jackson is a behavioral scientist at University College London, where she’s part of Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group. She coauthored a recent study (awaiting peer review) about the potential impacts of a disposables ban, using survey data from 70,000 UK adults.
“Our data suggests banning disposables may have unintended consequences,” Jackson told Filter. “Disposables are currently used by around 1.1 million adults who currently smoke and a further 744,000 who previously smoked. In addition, disposable use is higher among people from disadvantaged groups that have higher rates of smoking and typically find it harder to quit. A ban would disproportionately impact these groups.”
Proponents of a disposables ban cite their environmental impact and youth use. Youth vaping has recently risen in the UK, though some tobacco harm reduction advocates dispute the contention that this causes net harms at a population level.
However, advantages of disposables for adults looking to switch include accessibility, due to their ease of use and low cost. And Jackson said a ban could slow down the national decline in smoking, worsening health inequalities.
“Policymakers will need to carefully consider these trade-offs,” she said, “as well as other potential unintended consequences, when weighing the potential benefits of an outright ban on disposables against other regulatory policies.”
“The assessment will merely select the bits that support the proposed restrictions and ignore the bits that don’t.”
On social media, I asked for the views of people who have participated in the public consultation, or plan to do so. Some see it as a way for the government to cave to outcry at a supposed youth-vaping crisis portrayed by recent UK headlines.
“It smacks of ‘something must be done’—this is something, therefore it must be done,” responded Geoff Vann, a UK vaper who previously smoked. Expressing cynicism about the government’s process, he added, “the forthcoming impact assessment will merely select the bits that support the proposed restrictions and ignore the bits that don’t.”
Robert, who says he began smoking in 1971 at the age of 13, but quit in 2014 with the help of a vape, agreed. He responded that although he had taken part in the consultation, he believed the exercise was only to “placate the public,” writing, “they put out these [polls] and then do what they want regardless, especially as many don’t respond and they take that as agreeing to proposed regs.”
The government’s consultation represents both an opportunity and a threat, according to James Dunworth, director and cofounder of E Cigarette Direct, an online retailer: “An opportunity to solve some of these problems if the government gets it right, and the threat of increased smoking rates if the government gets it wrong,” he told Filter.
“My hope is that this is a genuine consultation, and will lead to responsible regulation,” he continued. “Examples would be properly enforcing current rules on youth sales or introducing a vape licensing system.”
“Listen. Not just to the charities, government bodies and businesses, but to vapers. Listen to the people whose lives have been transformed by vaping.”
Dunworth described some of the government’s suggestions—like bringing zero-nicotine e-liquid under the same rules as e-liquid containing nicotine—as “sensible.” But he expressed concern that restrictions and new taxes would increase smoking rates and boost unregulated markets.
Asked what the government can do to make the best of the consultation, Dunworth replied: “Listen. Not just to the charities, government bodies and businesses, but to vapers. Listen to the people whose lives have been transformed by vaping. And listen to the real experts, both the scientists and the people working with smokers. If the government does that, I think we could end up with some sensible regulations which will keep the UK at the forefront of harm reduction.”
It was Public Health England that commissioned a landmark 2015 review, estimating vapes to be 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes. The UK’s National Health Service recommends vaping for people unable to quit smoking. And in April, the government announced a world-first plan to give free vape starter kits to one million people who smoke.
Recent data from Action on Smoking and Health (UK) show an estimated 4.7 million British adults currently vaping. Of these, 56 percent formerly smoked; another 37 percent currently smoke, suggesting they may be reducing their smoking and/or on a path to switching entirely.
The UK has long been held up by international tobacco harm reduction advocates as a shining example of what can happen when you encourage people to switch from smoking to vaping. Recent developments signal that position could be under threat.
Correction, November 8: This article has been edited to more accurately reflect Dr. Jackson’s view that a disposables ban could slow down the smoking decline; an earlier version stated “would.”
Photograph by Helen Redmond