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We need “much heavier restrictions” on vapes, says former health minister

Steve Brine, now the Health Select Committee chair, says he is “alarmed” at the marketing practices used by e-cigarette companies to appeal to children.

By George Fitzmaurice

The former health department minister and sitting Health Select Committee chair, Steve Brine, has levelled criticisms at companies that produce vapes and e-cigarettes, telling New Statesman Spotlight that his committee was “unconvinced that the industry is doing all that it can to ensure its products don’t appeal to children”.

In a letter addressed to the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay on 19 July, Brine called for a range of measures to stop the rise of vaping among young people. “We believe there is a need for the government to consider much heavier restrictions on disposable vapes, in particular,” the Conservative MP wrote in the letter, and asked the government to consider “bringing the restrictions in line with those that apply to tobacco products”.

His official letter cautioned against an unthinking implementation of blanket bans, however. It encouraged the Department of Health to be “led by evidence in its decision-making, including that from Australia”. Australia banned the import of vaping products earlier this year, and it will now only be available through a prescription. Disposable vapes will be totally prohibited. Prior to a more restrictive, Australia-style legislation, the Health Committee chair has recommended a review aimed at tighter regulation on packaging, marketing and flavours.

“In our recent work on youth vaping, the committee was alarmed at the marketing practices of the vaping industry with products that appeal to children under 18,” Brine told Spotlight. “There is a rising trend of those under 18 accessing vapes, and we heard of concerns about the health and behavioural effects of nicotine consumption and addiction on children, including the impact on their education. It is clear that more must be done to prevent young people being attracted to start vaping, and stop eye-catching, colourful packaging and marketing.”

Elfbar, the UK’s leading vape brand, remains defensive about its conduct. The company launched the “Lighthouse Guardian Program” in January, the stated aim of which is “to protect teenagers’ safety and prevent their usage of nicotine in any form”, and told Spotlight that it is currently in the process of “removing flavours from certain products”. Elfbar has also called on the government to legislate “banning the use of cartoon imagery in vaping product marketing”. In late June, the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, vowed to “come down like a ton of bricks” on e-cigarette companies, including by banning branding and marketing aimed at young people. “On the Tories’ watch, a generation of schoolkids are getting hooked on nicotine,” Streeting told Spotlight.

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The rise in the number of school-aged children vaping and using e-cigarettes is alarming healthcare professionals. Simon Bryant, public health director for Hampshire County Council, is one of many to have voiced concerns. He called for government action to “protect children and young people” against the harmful and addictive properties of e-cigarettes.

[See also: Vapes are not enough to stop people smoking]

A recent report from Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) revealed that the proportion of children experimenting with vaping had “grown by 50 per cent year-on-year”. This is in line with an increase in exposure to vape promotion, with “more than half all children (53 per cent) aware of promotion in shops, and nearly a third (32 per cent) online”. Ash’s deputy chief executive, Hazel Cheeseman, said this was largely related to the “increased prominence of disposable vapes”, which are cheaper and often more visibly displayed at checkout counters.

But Cheeseman was keen to stress the differences between the use of vaping and e-cigarette products and ordinary tobacco smoking. “One is lethal and kills more than half of its users and the other is a valuable aid to quitting the really lethal thing,” Cheeseman told Spotlight. “The packaging needs to communicate that.” E-cigarettes act as a vital cessation tool for many smokers, and creating equivalent packaging restrictions between vapes and tobacco could threaten to promote the idea that vaping is “as or more harmful than smoking, [which is] a growing perception among smokers and the public in general”, she said.

According to Cheeseman, vaping and e-cigarettes should be positioned as “not something for kids to try, but as a quitting aid for the middle-aged smoker” – they need to be fundamentally “unglamorous”. Mike Sandys, director of public health for Leicestershire County Council, told Spotlight that e-cigarettes as smoking cessation aids “really work for people”, but that there needs to be a huge “clampdown on the appeal to kids”. Cracking down on this kind of marketing would be the “least contentious” thing to do, he said, removing the “super-sweet flavours” and “the bright colouring” without, Sandys added, having to resort to “standardised packaging”. A study in March revealed that young people were far less interested “in trying e-cigarettes in standardised green packaging than e-cigarettes in branded packaging”. The packaging had less of an impact on the choices of adults in the study. 

Public Health England says e-cigarettes are far less harmful than standard cigarettes. But, Sandys said, it’s important that health professionals and the wider public do not underestimate the potential health risks of e-cigarettes on developing lungs. An outbreak of so-called Evali (E-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury) in the US was logged by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019. That was found to be linked to contaminated illegal products that did not, on that occasion, lead to outbreaks in the UK, where the chemicals of concern are banned. However, when it comes to properly regulating the market in the UK, Sandys believes the evidence is clear and that the government should “just crack on and do it”.

In June, New Zealand did just that, announcing measures that included the imposition of “generic flavour descriptions” on e-cigarette packaging. Stringent e-cigarette legislation was imposed in Finland as far back as 2016, with bans on flavouring, strict age limits, marketing restrictions, import checks and tobacco smoking-style bans on public use. The World Health Organisation reports that “through a combination of swift action and stringent regulation, Finland has enjoyed drops in traditional smoking habits without seeing a contingent rise of e-cigarette prevalence”.

How likely the UK is to implement similar measures remains to be seen. David Cameron was a champion of e-cigarettes during his time in office, when he criticised and moved against European proposals to regulate the vaping market more stringently. Since then, government policy has remained relatively lax compared with many of the UK’s OECD counterparts. The Health Secretary himself was one of 296 MPs who voted down a clause to restrict e-cigarette companies’ marketing to children in 2021. The Health Committee and its chair have requested the government respond to its recommendations by 18 August.

[See also: Single-use vapes show we can’t rely on Gen Z to fix the climate crisis]

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