Environment

Kids love them. They’re an environmental disaster. Should disposable vapes be banned?

The government is set to announce a ban on disposable vapes. Is it the best way forward?

disposable vape ban

Calls are growing to ban disposable vapes. But is that the only solution? Image: Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

The government set to ban disposable vapes, with an announcement coming as soon as next week. But is a ban the best way forward?

As concerns grow over their environmental impact and appeal to children, the Telegraph reports that the fruity smoke sticks will be outlawed in a consultation from the Department of Health and Social Care.

Seemingly springing up out of nowhere, brands like Elf bars and Lost Mary have become a fixture in pub smoking areas and schools alike. More than five million are thrown away every week.

Advocates argue they’re a crucial step on the road away from smoking, but critics say they’re enticing those who wouldn’t otherwise smoke.

The fruity flavours and bright colours are “obviously targeted towards children, regardless of what manufacturers say,” according to Dr James Gill, honorary clinical lecturer at the University of Warwick.

In Scotland, the government is set to announce its plans this autumn after acknowledging disposable vapes’ impact on “our environment, local communities, and young people”.

Experts are split on whether an outright ban is the way forward, or whether other measures can tackle the problem. We’ve run through the options here.

Ban disposable vapes

Calls for an outright ban are growing. The Local Government Association, which speaks on behalf of local councils, has said a ban would be more effective than beefing up recycling efforts.

Doctors concerned with childrens’ health have joined the chorus, too, arguing a ban would be more sensible than waiting to find out if the fruity clouds are leading us into a health crisis.

“Without a doubt, disposable e-cigarettes should be banned. There is absolutely no reason that these cheap, readily available, brightly coloured, recreational products should be single use,” said Dr Mike McKean of the Royal College for Paediatrics and Child Health. 

A ban would follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, which announced its crackdown in June, but the idea has its critics. They argue it would deny smokers a helpful route out of their habit and create a black market in the products.

However, Laura Young, a Scottish climate activist leading a campaign to ban disposable vapes, told Big Issue there was already a thriving black market, with vapes sold under the counter and to children.

“If all disposable vapes were banned this would minimise the problem, and reduce the amount of places selling these devices so our significantly underfunded Trading Standards officers can distribute their capacity to where it is needed,” she said.

Banning disposable vapes would still leave adults with a route out of smoking, she added.

“The majority of people who are ex-smokers have quit through just stopping, or through other schemes like gums, patches, and help from their GP,” said Young.

“A ban on disposable vapes would also importantly not be a ban on vaping, so that would still be available in a form that is less harmful to the environment, and reduces the impact we’re seeing on youth vaping as the most popular device for underage users.”

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Make shops have a licence to sell disposable vapes

Shops currently don’t need a licence to sell disposable vapes, but products must be approved by the MHRA, the body which regulates medicines and medical devices in the UK.

It is also already illegal to sell disposable vapes to children. Some are in favour of requiring shops to have a licence to sell disposable vapes.

“We want to see all vape retailers and distributors licensed to sell these products,” John Dunne, director general of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), told an evidence session of parliament’s health and social care committee.

“That licensing has to include robust age verification processes and that they only stock legitimate licensed products.”

Restrict advertising on disposable vapes

Remember when cigarette packets used to be cool, the kind of designs you’d find on racing cars? Laws to introduce graphic images of the health impacts on top of a sewer-brown background have made them unappealing, but disposable vapes have taken up the baton with packaging that remains bright, colourful, and full of flavour.

Some credit the change in cigarette packaging with vastly reducing smoking rates, and say similar changes to disposable vape packaging and marketing could reduce their appeal to children.

Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said in-store promotion of vapes should be restricted, and that branding rules should be introduced to make vapes less tempting for children.

“This would probably include limiting bright colours and features like cartoons and could also extend to things like flavour names,” Cheeseman told Big Issue.

“We wouldn’t want to see dissuasive packaging, like we have with tobacco, as products need to remain sufficiently appealing to adults and not add to adult smoker’s confusion about whether vaping is less harmful than smoking. It is substantially less harmful and a good alternative to smoking .”

Blank packaging is also considered a step too far by UKVIA’s Dunne, who said: “It will conflate vaping with smoking and will add to the misperceptions that already abound regarding the relative risk of vaping compared to smoking; thereby potentially deterring smokers from attempting to quit using vapes; and raising doubts amongst vapers who may then consider returning to their former smoking habits.”

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A deposit return scheme

The litter epidemic caused by disposable vapes could be tackled with a deposit return scheme. That’s one of the options put forward by Zero Waste Scotland.

Just like bottles in Europe, an extra deposit could be charged on disposable vapes, to be paid back when they are returned to a recycling point.

This also provides an incentive for others to pick up litter and return it somewhere it can be disposed of safely.

However, this idea is more feasible in countries with the infrastructure for an existing deposit return scheme, and a proposed bottle recycling scheme in Scotland is proving controversial.

Put a greater tax on disposable vapes

A £5 tax on disposable vapes has been suggested by Action on Smoking and Health, on the premise that it would allow the authorities to act against counterfeit vapes, and make reusable vapes a better financial decision.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of ASH, told MPs a £5 excise tax would “make them less affordable for children but also to bring them within the excise tax regime. That means that Border Force and HMRC have powers to prevent illegal vapes from flooding into the country and prevent their distribution and sale.”

Better enforcement and harsher penalties for those breaking the rules

Shops shouldn’t be selling disposable vapes to under-18s. But they are – and they’re getting away with it. Just two shops were prosecuted for illegal vape sales in the two years to April 2023, thanks to under-resourced Trading Standards departments.

Ireland has introduced €4,000 fines and potential prison sentences for anybody caught selling vapes to children, and some want the UK to go further

“As an association we have called for extreme action to be taken on that. We want to see fines increased to a minimum of £10,000 per instance” of shops selling to under-18s, said the UKVIA’s Dunne.

“If there is no disincentive for retailers to do it, the small majority of retailers that frankly do not care who they sell the products to are going to continue to do what they are doing.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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