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Disposable vapes and the race to prohibition

The state should enforce existing rules, not ban disposable vapes

As an enthusiastic and prolific vaper, I have mixed feelings about disposable e-cigarettes. For the last two years I have watched the rapid ascent of Geek Bars, Elf Bars and Lost Marys with a sinking feeling that a tabloid panic was on its way. It arrived this summer. The littering and underage use with which they have become associated has tarnished the entire category and allowed a lot of people who never liked e-cigarettes to crawl out of the woodwork and demand harsh regulation.

On the other hand, disposables seem to do the trick for smokers who don’t want to mess around with a refillable device and learn about atomisers, batteries and wattage. For all the talk about teenage vaping, disposable e-cigarettes are mostly used by adults. Between 2021 and 2023, the proportion of adult vapers who used a disposable device rose from 5 per cent to 31 per cent. This amounts to over a million people, the vast majority of whom have a history of smoking.

Underage use, by contrast, is not as high as you might think. The most recent figures from Action on Smoking and Health show that 7.6 per cent of 11-17 year olds are current vapers, most of whom (3.9 per cent) use e-cigarettes less than once a week. Although 20.5 per cent of 11-17 year olds report having ever used an e-cigarette, most of them (11.6 per cent) have only done so once or twice. 

In other words, four out of five 11-17 year olds have never used an e-cigarette in their lives and only 3.7 per cent use them regularly.

At this point, I am obliged to say that one underage vaper is one too many, but let’s be realistic. Twice as many 11-15 year olds drink alcohol regularly than vape regularly. As recently as 2012, eight per cent of 11-15 year olds were regular smokers. Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Since 2012, when vaping became mainstream, the proportion of 11-15 year olds who smoke regularly has dropped from 4 per cent to just 1 per cent.

Nobody would seriously call for a ban on cider (or whatever teenagers drink these days) just because it’s relatively popular with underage consumers. In 2012, when 1 in 12 kids were smoking regularly, nobody outside the lunatic fringe was calling for a ban on cigarettes. We don’t ban 18 certificate films because some teenagers watch them. I can think of no precedent for the sale of a product being banned completely on the basis that children — who are already banned from buying it — are getting hold of it.

And yet that is what the government is proposing for disposable vapes. What good will it do?

One of the overlooked aspects of the teen vaping problem is that unscrupulous retailers are not only selling vapes illegally to minors but that the vapes themselves are often illegal. An analysis of e-cigarettes confiscated in a school in Kidderminster in May 2023 found that most of the products were illegal and unregulated, with many of them containing high levels of lead, nickel and chromium. As Action on Smoking and Health says: 

Children already find it easy to get hold of illegal vapes, as those selling them have no qualms selling to children, making them all illegal won’t help. The sale of illegal disposable vapes, already large and growing, will be turbo-charged if they are banned.

Banning something that is already illegal won’t work. Look no further than Australia if you want to see what a fiasco this could become. I have written before about how the Aussie government banned all e-cigarettes containing nicotine before doubling down with an import ban and ended up with a massive black market and a higher youth vaping rate than the UK.

As my colleague Reem Ibrahim and I explain in an IEA briefing paper today, it would be nice if the government tried enforcing the laws that already exist before rushing towards prohibition. We have all the laws we need on underage sales, product regulation and littering to deal with the legitimate concerns of parents and teachers.

Speaking of littering, there needs to be more awareness that disposable e-cigarettes — despite their name — can be recycled. The UK has thousands of facilities in supermarkets, vape stores and municipal recycling centres where disposable vapes can be recycled. An industry-wide deposit return scheme could be considered as a way to prevent littering and increase recycling rates, but banning disposable vapes on the grounds that many of them are currently sent to landfill would be a gross over-reaction.

Incidentally, it has been claimed that the amount of lithium discarded in disposable vapes every year is enough to build 1,200 car batteries. Let’s get  this in perspective. At the end of 2021, the number of electric cars on the road worldwide exceeded 16 million and is expected to rise to 350 million by 2030. Lithium use in disposable e-cigarettes in Britain is utterly negligible by comparison.

In the final analysis, legislating is no substitute for governing

In the final analysis, legislating is no substitute for governing. There is no reason why children should be able to buy disposable e-cigarettes more easily than they can buy alcohol or tobacco. The problem here is a lack of enforcement, not a lack of legislation.

A study published this week found that bans on e-cigarette flavours in several US states led to a rise in cigarette consumption. The principle is the same with disposable vapes. If you clamp down on something that is a direct substitute for cigarettes — and disposable vapes are the closest substitute yet — you will see an increase in smoking. Politicians should tread carefully.

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