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How should the UK Government deal with the vaping epidemic?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to face up to the fact that vaping is incredibly detrimental to our health. The government is beginning to acknowledge this, and has pledged to introduce legislation which will ban disposable vapes, and prevent children aged 15 or younger from ever being able to legally buy cigarettes. This legislation is urgently needed, since the list of health issues associated with smoking and vaping is growing alarmingly long. Smoking, according to the UK Government, is the ‘single biggest entirely preventable cause of ill-health, disability and death’, causing 80,000 deaths per year. Consequently, this not only impacts the health of smokers’ themselves, but also places a weighty burden on the NHS, and costs the economy £17 billion per year


However, although most people are familiar with the negative implications of smoking, the same rhetoric has not been applied to vaping. Instead, it is commonly seen as a better, and even healthier, alternative. This facilitates dangerous trends, leading to higher numbers of young people choosing to vape over smoking as they see it as less harmful, with 9% of 11–15-year-olds using vapes. The research surrounding the health impacts of vaping, especially long-term effects, is yet to emerge, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the dangers of vaping should not be underestimated. This can unfortunately be seen in cases such as 12-year-old Sarah Griffin, who suffered a lung collapse and was placed in an induced coma, following her addiction to vaping. This traumatic experience led her mother to implore other parents to “open your eyes, because this is happening all around, and possibly your child too”. This emotive story drives home the reality of the significant dangers that surround vaping, and thus the need for government intervention and action. 


Although there has been significant backing for this legislation from both sides of the Commons, since the shadow health secretary has promised that a Labour government would come down like a “tonne of bricks” on vaping companies, there has nevertheless been backlash. There are concerns that these laws would undermine the original purpose of vapes, which was to help adults transition out of smoking. It is undeniable that cigarettes remain more dangerous than vapes, owing to the presence of a multiplicity of harmful, carcinogenic chemicals, such as tobacco, meaning that schemes such as ‘Swap to Stop’ have been vital in helping people to recover from addiction and improve their health. However, the laws limiting vaping could have the unintended consequence of preventing adults’ ability to access them, causing smoking to rise once more. This occurred in New Zealand, following strict limitations on the sale of tobacco and the amount of nicotine in products. 


Nevertheless, the government has pushed back against these concerns, emphasising that ‘adults who vape responsibly will be able to continue to do so’. Instead the focus has been on protecting children’s health through limiting their access to vapes, with the ultimate aim of creating a “smoke-free generation”. This has been done through gradually introducing measures to further limit the accessibility of vapes, so as to create a future where children have never had legal access to vapes. This seems to follow an attempt to find middle ground, whereby vaping is retained for adults requiring it to transition from smoking, but not for people who have never smoked, particularly children.


The government’s hope of creating a smoke-free generation could be interpreted as too idealistic. They are attempting to ban children from vaping, whilst continuing to allow adults to vape “responsibly”. Despite the clear benefits of this legislation, which aims to restore the health of the nation, and follow Sunak’s pledge to “act before [vaping] becomes endemic”, this relies on effective enforcement. Significantly, the demand for vapes may not decrease if they are merely outlawed, particularly due to the addictive nature of nicotine, thereby forcing people to turn to black market routes. This fear was voiced by environmental activist Scott Butler, who warned that “If the legitimate industry is banned, then there will be no mechanism to deal with all the operational challenges and costs of illegally sold vapes, which have the same challenges”, yet more problematic, since illegal channels are much harder to regulate. 


This pushback has been particularly prevalent amongst powerful vaping companies, such as British American Tobacco (BAT), who will be significantly impacted by a reduction in customers. However, the BAT has called for a compromise, urging the government to instead introduce “a retail licence as we do for alcohol. This has been criticised as a prioritisation of commercial interests, instead of children’s health. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the problems surrounding vaping will not automatically be solved through outlawing them.

 

Ultimately, the government should accompany this legislation with greater focus on eliminating the factors driving people towards vaping, especially amongst children who are not using it to recover from smoking. Statistics show that children who vape are twice as likely to report chronic stress, and children from more deprived areas are more likely to smoke. The government must address these correlations alongside their commitment to reducing vaping rates, to ensure that the root causes of vaping are considered. Such a complex and dangerous issue such as vaping, must be tackled through a comprehensive, multifaceted approach, as legislation alone is not enough to solve the problems posed by vaping.


Image by VapeCity via Wikimedia Commons


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