“Disgusted”—Consumers, Harm Reductionists React to UK Vape Tax

March 12, 2024

The United Kingdom’s government has confirmed a new vape tax, in a decision that angers advocates and threatens to undermine tobacco harm reduction.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the minister responsible for economic matters, announced the country’s first ever specific tax on nicotine e-liquids (above and beyond standard sales tax) as part of his national budget on March 6. The move had been widely expected and is intended, according to the government, “to discourage young people and non-smokers from vaping.”

Tax will be charged at three different rates, depending on nicotine levels. Nicotine-free e-liquids will cost an extra £1 per 10 milliliters. Lower-nicotine e-liquids (0.1-10.9 mg/ml) will cost an extra £2 per 10 ml. And higher-nicotine e-liquids will cost an extra £3 per 10 ml. This is set to take effect in 2026.

The UK aims to achieve “smoke-free” status, meaning less than 5 percent of the population would smoke, by 2030. Past UK policies have supported vaping as a way of achieving this goal. But more recently, media youth-vaping outcry has helped spark measures including a disposables ban.

Acknowledging that vapes can “play a positive role in helping people quit smoking,” Hunt announced that there would also be a one-off increase in tobacco duty, to “maintain a financial incentive to choose vaping over smoking.”

They tell us to quit smoking, and then decide to tax the product that helps us to quit.”

High tobacco taxes are themselves sometimes criticized for targeting low-income populations with the highest smoking rates. Regardless, Hunt’s financial incentive would have been far stronger had he held off taxing vapes—as would the likelihood of people buying regulated vaping products, rather than turning to a surging unregulated market.

British vapers have reacted with dismay.

“I’m baffled by the new tax on vaping products,” Neil Drury told Filter. He started smoking when he was 22. After years of trying to stop, he was finally able to quit cigarettes at the age of 50, by switching to vapes.

They tell us to quit smoking,” he said, “and then decide to tax the product that helps us to quit, for no logical reason other than as a tax-grab.”

“From what I’ve seen, my vape cost will almost double,” Wes, in England, told Filter on social media. “Yes, it’s still cheaper than smoking, but that’s a pretty low bar considering how expensive smoking already is. I am considering DIY or import.”

Robert, who quit smoking 10 years ago by using vapes, told Filter he was “disgusted” and “saddened” by the new tax, including the way it ramps up for higher nicotine levels.

Robert needs higher nicotine levels, he said, to help him “cope with life.” But he also needs to cut costs as he plans to retire soon, and has chosen to vape a lower-nicotine option because it’s cheaper.

With the tax hike, Robert said, even lower-nicotine products will become too expensive for him. “I just can’t afford to pay with only £800 pension per month coming in, with food and bills to pay. How will I cope?”

British tobacco harm reduction advocate Clive Bates, of Counterfactual Consulting, echoed such concerns.

“On the one hand, the government is encouraging vaping through NHS advice and Swap-to-Stop,” he told Filter, “but on the other, it is going to clobber smokers who take its advice.”

“Not too long ago, the UK was held up as ‘science over moral panic.’ It seems that’s no longer the case.”

The UK has previously embraced the science around vapes as harm reduction through helpful public information, widespread availability and various progressive policies.

“Not too long ago, the UK was held up as ‘science over moral panic,’” British consumer Miles Davis told Filter. “It seems that’s no longer the case.” Davis smoked for 35 years before quitting, thanks to vapes, five years ago.

This vape tax makes absolutely no sense,” he continued. “If the government wants to get to smoke-free status by 2030, it’s not a good idea to make the most successful smoking cessation aid [more expensive]. There appears to have been no logical thinking applied at all.”

The government expects the new tax to raise £500 million in annual revenues by the 2028-29 financial year. A 2023 study, as Filter reported, indicated that if 50 percent of people who smoke switched to reduced-risk products, the government-funded National Health Service would save £518 million a year.

“It isn’t the tax that upsets many of us, it is the fact that more people will die.”

“So instead of saving the NHS £500 million a year, [Hunt] hopes to raise £500 million a year in taxes?” commented British vape advocate Richard Pruen.

“It isn’t the tax that upsets many of us, it is the fact that more people will die,” Pruen told Filter. “The less attractive vaping, the more attractive smoking.”

In perhaps a sliver of hope for opponents of the vape tax, the government has opened a public consultation, through which, it says, “We will consider your response to help shape our policy development and ensure the vaping products duty achieves its objectives.”

“It certainly makes no sense for public health,” Bates said of the policy. “A tax will add to the sense that vapes are more dangerous than they are. It’s all completely incoherent and opportunistic, and hopefully, it will be reversed before it takes effect more than two years from now.”



Photograph (cropped) of vape shop in County Durham, England, by JThomas via Geograph/Creative Commons 2.0

Kiran Sidhu

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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