UK to clamp down on vape products targeted at teens

The government is set to consult on banning flavoured single-use vapes in England and has announced new funding for a task force to crack down on retailers targeting teenagers, as concern grows among health officials over a surge in underage e-cigarette use.

In a speech on Tuesday at the centre-right Policy Exchange think-tank, health minister Neil O’Brien will launch a call for evidence to identify ways of reducing young people’s access to vapes, which could include outlawing sweet flavours.

O’Brien will also confirm £3mn of extra funding for an illicit vapes enforcement squad led by Trading Standards, the government service that safeguards consumer protections. It will be empowered to investigate whether shops are selling vapes to under-18s and to remove illicit products from shelves.

The announcement is the first sign of the government, which has historically championed vapes as an aid to quit smoking, tightening the regulation around e-cigarettes in England.

The clampdown follows a wave of new flavoured, single-use vapes going on sale in the UK over the past two years from brands including Elf Bar, Geek Bar and Lost Mary.

Some 18 per cent of 15-year-olds in England and Wales were using e-cigarettes in February last year — an all-time high, according to the NHS. Overall, the number of 11- to 17-year-olds vaping in Britain more than doubled from 3.3 per cent to 7 per cent between 2021 and 2022, the charity Action on Smoking and Health has said.

Elf Bars, for instance, are available in more than 40 flavour varieties including “green gummy bear”, “lemon tart” and “cherry cola”.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, told the House of Commons health select committee in February of his concern that the “principal market” for such products was children, arguing that more needed to be done to stop underage vaping.

Ahead of his speech, O’Brien said: “While vaping is a preferable alternative to smoking for adults, we are concerned about the rise in youth vaping, particularly the increasing use of disposable vaping products.”

Research suggests that nicotine use at a young age increases the likelihood of mood and attention disorders, while some scientists have expressed fears about long-term health damage caused by vaping.

O’Brien said the call for evidence would give the government “a firm understanding of the steps” that can be taken to reduce underage vaping rates. The health department said it would also explore the marketing and promotion of vapes and the environmental impact of disposable e-cigarettes.

Analysis by the Financial Times last month showed that more than 1,600 tonnes of lithium were used in the 138mn single-use vapes sold in the UK in 2022, potentially wasting enough of the rare metal to produce about 2,600 electric vehicle batteries.

John Dunne, chief executive of the UK Vaping Industry Association, a trade body, cautioned ministers against making changes that were “too radical”, arguing that a ban on flavoured vapes could “lead to millions of adult vapers taking up smoking again”.

Last year, a review commissioned by ministers urged health authorities to “embrace” vaping to help the government meet its target of cutting smoking rates by more than half to 5 per cent in 2020.

But Javed Khan, the former head of children’s charity Barnardo’s who led the review, called for the availability of flavoured vaping products to be reviewed “to ensure vapes do not appeal to young people”.

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