Pressure on the government to do something urgently about disposable vapes has been increasing in recent months. Since last November, when Green Alliance co-ordinated a letter of environmental and health experts calling for them to be banned and it now seems hardly a week goes by without a notable development. Up in Scotland, they’re conducting an urgent review, which could lead to a ban; in Westminster, Dr Caroline Johnson MP received widespread support for her private members’ bill to prohibit the sale of disposable e-cigarettes; across the country, supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda, have voluntarily banned a popular disposable vape over health concerns, and Waitrose has completely withdrawn from the disposables market over environmental concerns. Health experts have also raised the alarm about a growing ‘epidemic’ among young people, and countless news articles have described the shocking environmental impact of these gadgets.
So, it must be good news that the government is finally taking some sort of action, mustn’t it? And that, after so much public outcry, the Department of Health and Social Care has launched a call for evidence on youth vaping, which will also look at the impact on the environment?
Well, I’m not exactly jumping for joy. Rather than bold action to nip this growing threat in the bud, all this seems to be yet more dithering and delay. Here are a few problems with what’s been announced.
Calls for evidence aren’t the same as action
Let’s start with the mechanics of how a call for evidence works: the call is open for 12 weeks, which means responses won’t be fully gathered until June. After that, the government says it intends to respond within 12 weeks, which is standard good practice set out by Cabinet Office guidance for all consultations.
It’s worth noting that some departments don’t have a great track record of timely responses. Take the joint Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) call for evidence on standards for biodegradable plastic. That concluded in July 2019 but went without a government response until April 2021. Or Defra’s more recent call for evidence on banning commonly littered single use items, which concluded in November 2021 and had no government response for a full year.
As with those two, there’s no guarantee at all the government will do anything concrete after this call for evidence. No standards or further bans have been introduced or proposed as a result of the biodegradable and single use plastic consultations. In the consultation document on disposable vapes, the government notes that it intends to follow up by setting out “the opportunities to reduce the number of children vaping which have been identified through the call for evidence”. That won’t necessarily lead to meaningful new measures (more on which in a moment) and it could still be ages before anything happens at all. Which leaves the problem to get worse.
The government hasn’t grasped the threat
The call for evidence repeats several times that vaping is an important tool to help achieve the ambition “for England to be smokefree by 2030” and that “evidence on vapes for smoking cessation indicates that they can help smokers to quit”. This may well be true, but why do they have to be disposable? Throwaway versions are rapidly eating the market share of reusables, which are arguably more suited to helping people quit smoking.
This is borne out by evidence suggesting a whole new cohort of youth vapers is being created by access to fun flavoured cheap disposables. These are kids who never smoked before, with a doubling of child vaping between 2020 and 2022 (it’s likely these figures have climbed higher still since).
In fact, the government consultation references outdated information on the rapid rise of disposables, citing Material Focus research from July 2022 that found over 1.3 million disposable vapes were thrown away every week. But it missed a crucial new statistic: less than eight months later, it’s likely the figure has more than doubled. By March 2023 the market for disposables had jumped to 138 million a year, equivalent to 2.7 million vapes every week. Those in charge of safeguarding children’s health and the environment should be very alarmed.
Enforcing existing regulations isn’t good enough
It is all the more dispiriting that the focus of the call for evidence seems to be mainly on enforcing clearly inadequate regulations meant to prevent young people from getting their hands on e-cigarettes and making producers cover the cost of disposal or recycling. Making sure retailers don’t sell them to under 18s is obviously important (though, according to my 15 year old niece, that’s not how her friends get a hold of them anyway). But the continued focus on correct disposal misses the much more effective option of simply making sure they never get onto the market in the first place.
The government says it does not generally favour bans in its fight against plastic waste, but there have been exceptions to this rule, such as the recent banning of single use plastic plates and cutlery. In that instance, the government determined: “A ban was chosen as the policy measure as it will ensure the desired change and associated environmental benefits are felt quickly and ensure that these are sustained into the future. Also, and importantly, our understanding is that there are viable alternatives available to these items.”
This statement is directly relevant to disposable vapes. The desired change here is surely to stop children vaping, quickly protecting their health, now and in the future, while preventing dangerous littering, fires from incorrectly handled batteries and the loss of precious materials like lithium and copper, so necessary for the low carbon transition. Rather than tinkering around the edges at an indeterminate point in the future, possibly months and months away, the straightforward and most effective answer to this problem is to ban disposables and promote reusables to all those who need them to quit smoking.