Vaping bans respond to growing health and environmental concerns

Margaret TaylorFriday 16 February 2024

When the UK’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced a ban on the sale of disposable vapes in late January, he said his government’s aim was to stamp out vaping among children. ‘Children shouldn’t be vaping, we don’t want them to get addicted, we still don’t understand the full long-term health impacts’, he explained. What’s more, the government has acknowledged the environmental consequences of the use of disposable vapes.

The ban followed a campaign by organisations including the charity Action on Smoking and Health, which had become concerned about the growing trend among youngsters to take up vaping without ever trying smoking.

Vapes, otherwise known as e-cigarettes, have been around since the early 2000s and were originally marketed as a smoking-cessation aid. In recent years, however, a different kind of product has flooded the market, with brightly coloured, fruity-flavoured, disposable versions making vapes attractive to children.

The long-term health implications of these products are not yet understood, but because they contain nicotine – an addictive substance – it’s assumed they pose a risk to public health. Given that it’s mainly the younger generation that are attracted to them, the proposed ban has been widely welcomed.

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, said she had been ‘shocked and concerned to hear from children as young as 12’ that vaping was ’normalised among their peers’, adding that the ban will ‘help tackle that issue’. Dr Mike McKean, Vice President for Policy at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, agrees, noting that ‘bold action was always needed to curb youth vaping and banning disposables is a meaningful step in the right direction’.

From an environmental perspective people are engaging with [plastic] on a much more fulsome level than they have in the past

Michael Showalter
Programme Officer, IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee

Yet the picture is complicated by the fact that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) still wants vapes – the non-disposable, refillable kind – to be made available to adults wanting to give up smoking. The government says vapes ‘contribute to an extra 50,000 to 70,000 smoking quits a year in England’, meaning it’s vital that the legislation gets the balance right.

As Andrea Leadsom, the UK’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health, Start for Life and Primary Care says, while the government is committed to introducing tougher enforcement measures, it must ensure the vapes allowed on the market ‘are aimed at the people they were designed to help – adults who are quitting smoking’.

However, Wayne Hall, Emeritus Professor at the National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research at the University of Queensland, says it’ll probably be difficult to ensure this is the case. Australia introduced a similar ban at the beginning of 2024, with the importation of all non-therapeutic vaping products to be completely halted by March. The problem, Hall says, is that the legislation may turn out to be challenging to enforce.

‘For the scheme to be successful, three things need to happen – vaping products that vapers will use need to be available, GPs need to be willing to write prescriptions, and pharmacies need to be able to meet the demand’, he says. ‘None of these are guaranteed [but] failure to do so could see some people continue to use the illicit market for vapes, or to switch to traditional cigarettes.’

Rajat Jariwal, Publications Officer for the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee and a partner at Trilegal in New Delhi, explains that an Indian law passed in 2019 made the ‘possession of e-cigarettes and similar devices in any form, quantity, or manner a violation’ on public health grounds.

‘However, the ban has not been very effective’, Jariwal says. ‘Therefore, recently the government has amplified its efforts to create greater awareness around the ban and the negative impacts of the usage of e-cigarettes by issuing advisories to several authorities to ensure compliance with the law. These advisories have also been issued by courts while dealing with public interest litigation. However, no exemplary action has been taken against any violator as yet.’

Prior to the UK ban being announced, the Local Government Association (LGA) lobbied the government on environmental grounds, stating that the littering caused by disposable vapes was as important a consideration as the public health implications. Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, acknowledged this when he said the ban would help address the ‘huge and growing stream of hard-to-recycle waste, with nearly five million [vapes] thrown away every week’.

David Fothergill, Chair of the LGA Community Wellbeing Board, has welcomed the planned legislation, saying that ‘single-use vapes blight our streets as litter, are a hazard in our bin lorries and are expensive and difficult to deal with in our recycling centres’.

For Michael Showalter, Programme Officer on the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee and a partner at ArentFox Schiff in Chicago, the environmental aspect, which is already leading to litigation in the US, could provide the route to enforcement action. ‘In the US we have litigation for things like cigarette butts and I would think they’re probably more compostable than vapes’, he says. ‘It’s low-hanging fruit as regulators start to meaningfully engage with waste issues.’ He adds that, from an environmental perspective, people are engaging with plastic on a much more fulsome level than they have in the past. ‘Now the average, reasonably engaged person is becoming much more conscious of their footprint in that area’, he says.

Similarly, Jariwal says that an Indian ban on single-use plastic items with low utility that came into force in 2022 could prove more effective in phasing out disposable vapes than the country’s Prohibition of Electronic Cigarettes Act. The impact is still being studied but, he says, ‘the initial signs are positive’.

While the ban is likely to go some way to dealing with the environmental impact of disposable vapes, Jariwal cautions that legislators will have to tread carefully when putting in place legislation that’s centred specifically around health. For Jariwal, the focus for policies encouraging smokers to switch from traditional cigarettes to vapes should – and probably will – be on sustainable, multi-use vapes. ‘Combating one social ill with another can never be a long-term solution and policymakers around the world recognise that,’ he says.

Image credit: bennyrobo/