Disposable vapes are the biggest-selling vape device in the UK with over 7.7 million sold every week in 2023.(1) They are hugely successful, but their success comes at a price. The very attributes that make disposables so popular are also their biggest flaw, with the UK government currently undergoing a consultation process whilst it considers a ban.
In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about the proposed disposable vape ban in the UK.
The disposable vape ban in the UK: What you need to know
The UK is considering banning disposable vapes like Lost Mary and Elf Bar in 2024. This is due to their significant contribution to the sudden rise in underage vaping, with their range of bright colours and flavours seen as appealing to young children. There is also an environmental concern, as disposables contribute to large amounts of waste.
On the positive side, many smokers have benefitted from disposable vapes. They have emerged as the most popular and successful method for people trying to quit smoking as they are easy to use and cheaper than cigarettes. The concern is that an outright ban may force many to return to tobacco.
The ban is part of a growing effort to reduce smoking rates and protect public health, particularly among young people. However, with the government struggling to get to grips with the existing black market vaping crisis, it has sparked debate about the effectiveness of prohibition measures and whether they truly address the root causes of underage vaping.
In England, the government, in consultation with the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS, have actively promoted vaping as a successful method for smoking cessation. With disposable vapes being so popular, the question is how best to find a balance between harm reduction, whilst protecting the wellbeing of children and finding effective ways to reduce the waste.
The history of vaping regulations in the UK
Smoking costs the UK economy over £20 billion per year and is one of the reasons the UK government has set a target for England to become smoke-free by 2030.(2) They have taken a harm reduction approach, aimed at encouraging smokers to transition to less harmful nicotine alternatives like e-cigarettes.
In order to strike a balance between giving consumers access to smoke-free alternatives and protecting public health, the government established the Tobacco and Regulated Products Regulations (TRPR) in 2016. This comprehensive legislation ensured that any related vaping products met stringent safety requirements, with bans on certain ingredients, package label warnings and limits on e-liquid volume and nicotine strength.
In the proceeding years, however, a growing black market emerged with vendors hawking illicit e-liquids and unregulated vape kits to unsuspecting consumers. Often sold at corner shops, these unscrupulous traders provide easy access to dangerous products, often with no barriers to underage selling. According to the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), the black market accounts for 50% of all single-use vape sales in the UK.(3)
This highlights the central debate around the ban of legitimate disposable vapes; the governments inability to tackle the existing problem of underage selling, and the worry that an outright ban would only make the black market worse.
The Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) regulates all vaping related products to protect consumer well-being.
What are disposable vapes and why are they popular?
Disposable vapes are single-use electronic cigarettes that replicate the sensation of smoking but don't require any setup or prior knowledge to use. They are prefilled with flavoured e-liquid and nicotine, and fitted with a precharged battery that is non-rechargeable. Single-use vapes are very easy to use, they have no buttons and can be activated by simply inhaling on the mouthpiece.
For smokers who are completely unfamiliar with vaping, disposable vapes provide a step-free method to quit tobacco, with some consumers naturally transitioning to more sustainable refillable vape kits later on.
The potential health risks associated with disposable vapes
The main concern regarding disposable vapes is their impact on the health of children. A recent survey by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), revealed that vaping among children has increased by 50% in 2023.(4) Astoundingly, 2.1% of those surveyed were given their first vape for free in promotional campaigns, which is currently not illegal (a loophole that is actively under review by the government). Whilst they are widely regarded as a much safer alternative for adults, the negative impact of nicotine on developing adolescent brains can lead to long-term cognitive and behavioural problems, as well as leading to lifelong nicotine addiction.(5)
There are a number of consumables that are banned for sale to underage users, alcohol and tobacco for example, that are acceptable facets of our economy. Whilst fully regulated and controlled, a small percentage of underage users will gain access to them, yet we still allow them in our society even though they are more damaging to health than vaping. The question has to be asked, why treat disposable vapes any differently if they are largely helping people?
On the left is an illicit disposable that could potentially contain harmful substances like lead. On the right is a legitimate disposable that was imported, however, it falls outside of TPD regulations as it contains more than 2ml of e-liquid and higher levels of nicotine. Both were purchased from the same corner shop.
The impact of disposable vapes on the environment
Recent research by Material Focus has found that up to 5 million single-use vapes are being thrown away every week. (6) Each of these devices contains a number of valuable materials that are senselessly going to landfills or polluting the environment. The products themselves can be recycled and the vaping industry as a whole could benefit from a comprehensive deposit return scheme.
According to Greenpeace, over 10 tonnes of lithium disposable batteries were thrown away in 2022, which is enough to power 1,200 electric cars.(7) This is a huge number but when compared to the 16.5 million electric vehicles already in the UK, it gives the scale of the issue more perspective.(8) The ban on disposable vapes is also aimed at preventing these finite materials from ending up in landfills and polluting waterways. However, the existing glut of illicit single-use vapes needs to be addressed before a total ban can be argued as likely to succeed.
It is evident that the disposable vape concept is needlessly wasteful, but serious efforts need to be undertaken to implement a rational and inclusive recycling programme, in coordination with local government associations (LGA), before a total ban exacerbates the problem of pollution even further.
Will the potential ban be effective in reducing youth vaping?
Youth vaping is the driving force behind the debate on the disposable vapes ban, with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health citing their concern for the increase in young people taking up vaping and its long-term health implications. TPD-compliant vape retailers are legally bound to carry out online age verification and carry out 'Challenge 25' age checks in face-to-face sales and can face a fine of up to £2,500 if caught selling to minors. The blind spot is the swath of unregulated online and corner shop retailers trading illegal devices, who need to come under regulation.
Ben Keirle, CEO of 1account Age Verification, says, 'Youth Access Prevention appears to have the majority of its problems on the high street. With so many different retailer types, particularly disposables, which can be bought anywhere from a newsagent to a fishing tackle shop and everything in between, the potential for harm in this area is large, and the enforcement is difficult and expensive.'
"'Youth Access Prevention appears to have the majority of its problems on the high street. With so many different retailer types, disposables can be bought anywhere... the potential for harm in this area is large, and the enforcement is difficult and expensive.'"
'Online age and identity verification is not new. Both the gambling and financial services sectors have been obligated to conduct checks for a lot longer than the e-commerce sector,' Keirle said. Age Verification companies like 1account argue that it is easier to protect online consumers with 'plugins' that can be implemented in nearly every eCommerce platform to prevent underage purchasing. 'It's impossible to say the same about on the high street', says Keirle, 'and it'd seem rather punitive to a thriving online industry to ban the sale of any product that wasn't making its way into the hands of minors where the sites are (most of them) implementing a real online age verification product.'
"Online age and identity verification is not new. It is easier to protect online consumers in nearly every eCommerce platform to prevent underage purchasing. It's impossible to say the same about the high street'"
The organisation Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has also issued caution over banning single use vapes. Their research shows that most children who use these devices obtain them from unregulated high street retailers and that a ban will be a boon to the black market.(9) Instead, they support an increase in tax on disposable vapes, making them less affordable and less attractive to minors. ASH also supports giving greater powers to Trading Standards authorities to enforce age of sale regulations in face-to-face sales.
An increase in the cost of disposable vapes could also encourage adult vapers to transition to more sustainable and money-saving re-usable vape kits and could result in a phasing out of the disposable vape market altogether.
The economic implications of a disposable vape ban
As of 2022, the vaping industry in the UK is worth £1.2bn with disposable vapes making up £973 million of all vape sales. A ban on disposable vapes would lead to revenue losses for the entire vape industry chain, from manufacturers and distributors to retailers. The knock-on effect could lead to downsizing and job losses as well as a huge reduction in tax revenue.(10)
Access to beginner-friendly disposable vapes has formed a doorway allowing smokers to make the switch. According to a recent report by the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), encouraging smokers to move to vaping would prove a positive step towards reducing the economic burden of smoking, whereas a ban could only do the opposite. They also stated that 11-15-year-olds are twice as likely to drink alcohol regularly than they are to vape, whilst noting the number of children who smoke cigarettes has fallen from 10-20% to 2-5% since 2012.(11)
A ban does not address the sale of illicit disposable vapes to minors, which is already a prolific industry, but it does threaten to send vapers back to smoking. This could cause an increased strain on the economy and health services, threaten jobs and almost certainly guarantee an increase in the funding required to get to grips with the black market which will be fuelled by a ban on disposables.
The role of the vaping industry in the disposable vape ban proposal
The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) has called for the need for tougher regulation on the sale of vaping products to children. They highlight research by Arcus Compliance which revealed that just over £2000 worth of fines were handed out to retailers for underage and illicit product sales in three years leading up to 2023.(12) They have proposed that the government increase the fines to £10,000 per offence, as well as an introduction of robust retail licensing and a national test purchasing scheme.
Acknowledging the role in packaging and product descriptions, UKVIA encouraged limiting references that appeal to children, whilst promoting clear standards for package labelling and flavour names. The biggest challenge, they say, is providing a practical way for consumers to easily recycle their used devices. They cited a recent study by Waste Experts which found that up to 99% of plastic and aluminium single-use vape devices were recyclable or recoverable.(13)
There is also a shift in manufacturer outlook, with several disposable makers reducing the quantity of plastic and metal in their units. Slix for example, uses a shell made of cardboard and biodegradable silicone, whilst VEEV provides a recycling returns programme for its devices.
How will the proposed disposable vape ban affect adult vapers in the UK?
4.7 million adults use e-cigarettes in the UK and of those, 2.7 million are ex-smokers, with the number of adult smokers switching to vaping continuing to grow. According to ASH, disposable vapes account for 31% of the types of vapes used in 2023, a huge increase from 2.3% in 2021.(14)
We conducted a recent survey of over 1,000 of our customers here at Vape Superstore and found that 21% of vapers would go back to smoking if the government banned disposable vapes. Reassuringly though, the majority (68.7%) would switch to a refillable pod device instead.
Encouraging the shift to refillable vapes can ensure that consumers don't return to smoking as well as helping to mitigate the widespread negative economic effects. Reusable vape kits are far more economical and less wasteful and they are just as easy to use.
Will they ban vape flavours?
Flavour bans are already in place in several countries around the globe and in the UK, ministers are currently debating whether or not to institute similar restrictions. The argument for the flavour ban is their appeal among teenagers and young adults, with their similarities to well-known sweet shop candies seen as tempting to a younger demographic.
The same, however, could be said of flavoured alcoholic drinks, so-called 'alco-pops', which are brightly coloured and exceptionally sweet tasting. Yet instead of a ban on sweet-flavoured alcohol, they are heavily regulated and monitored.
Our survey results were more alarming when it came to vaper's opinions on a flavour ban. 1 in 3 (29%) vapers said they would go back to smoking if the government banned sweet e-liquid flavours. While 15% would turn to the black market to get their flavours, already highlighting the potential shift towards unsafe products if the legtitmate vaping industry is restricted.
Flavours make the transition from smoking more appealing to adults. According to ASH, over 50% of adult vapers prefer fruit or sweet-flavoured e-liquids. There is a risk that consumers may return to smoking if a flavour ban comes into place. Consumers could also be pushed to purchase dangerous and unregulated flavoured e-liquids from the black market which would then have a monopoly over flavoured e-liquids.
How would a disposable vape ban affect people quitting smoking?
Tobacco products remain readily available and disposable vapes give smokers an accessible and convenient way to start vaping. Banning them could potentially make it more difficult for consumers to make the transition. This is where switching to refillable vapes could save the day, and communicating and promoting their ease of use and affordability is key.
Refillable pod kits are much cheaper to maintain than disposable vapes, the average rechargeable kit costs under £20, which is a one-off purchase. A 10ml bottle of e-liquid costs £3-£4 per bottle and delivers up to 3000 puffs. Whereas a single disosable only nets the user up to 600 puffs and costs around £5 per device.
The Benefits of Refillable Pod Kits
- 35% cheaper than disposable vapes.
- 70% cheaper than cigarettes.
- Minimal setup.
- More flavour options.
- Can reduce nicotine strength.
Coupled with effective management and enforcement of illicit and underage selling, along with government and NHS incentives, the focus could be shifted from disposables to reusable vape devices as the go-to option for smokers.
The staggering abundance and accessibility of black market vapes illustrate how corner shop retailers are freely importing disposable vapes that, legitimate or not, fall outside of the TPD regulations. It is currently illegal to sell disposable vapes to underage users, yet there has been a steady increase in the uptake of children using these devices. The government needs to show that it can enforce the existing regulations in the current black market crisis before including a wholesale ban on disposable vapes, which would only serve to compound the proliferation of these illicit products and further stretch the existing enforcement capabilities in place.
If a ban is enforced, then the promotion of refillable vape devices, which closely replicate disposable vapes, will be vital to mitigating the widespread negative economic effects that shutting down this nearly £1bn economy would incur. Increasing the cost of disposable vapes could potentially make them unaffordable to minors, and along with empowering smokers with the knowledge that reusable vape kits are cheaper and just as easy to use, could help turn the tide against disposables altogether.
(1,6) Number of disposable single-use vapes thrown away have in a year quadrupled to 5 million per week - materialfocus.org.uk
(2) Ending smoking could free up 75,000 GP appointments each month - news.cancerresearch.org
(4, 14) Use of e-cigarettes (vapes) among young people in Great Britain - ash.org.uk.
(5) Promote e-cigarettes widely as substitute for smoking says new RCP report - rcplondon.ac.uk
(7) Are disposable vapes bad for the environment? - greenpeace.org.uk
(8) Disposable vape ban could cost lives, says new IEA paper - iea.org.uk
(9) ASH response to 'Councils call for ban of disposable vapes' - ash.org.uk
(10) Expanding category – The vape market is expected to reach £1.4bn in the next three years - grocerytrader.co.uk
(13) Waste Experts’ study demonstrates high recyclability of disposable vapes - conveniencestore.co.uk
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