The unintended consequences of the UK’s latest legislation — in South Africa and beyond

The unintended consequences of the UK’s latest legislation — in South Africa and beyond
Asanda Gcoyi

The global debate on regulations for electronic vapour products (EVPs), also known as e-cigarettes or vapes, has taken a sharp turn with the UK’s contentious proposal to ban disposable e-cigarettes. While the decision aims to shield children from potential nicotine addiction, its ramifications transcend national borders, possibly impacting regulations across continents, including South Africa.

The ban has sparked debates and industry concerns within the international community, particularly following the recent 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) meeting in which parties to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) discussed effective implementation strategies to the treaty. Debates around harm reduction strategies were reignited at COP10 and while the final treaty revision does not explicitly address vaping, it underscores the need for effective regulation based on scientific evidence and public health objectives.

The UK government justifies its ban, announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 29 January 2024, on concerns about rising youth vaping and the difficulty of controlling both the nicotine content found in vapes as well as the repurposing of vape pens to contain other potentially harmful substances such as cannabis derivatives.

The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) has expressed apprehension about the potential in a letter addressed to the Prime Minister, arguing that the decision to implement a ban on disposable vapes jeopardises the significant progress made in reducing smoking rates in the UK. “Banning disposable vapes instead of focusing on effective enforcement will not only fail to protect young people but will also exacerbate the situation by fuelling the black market, resulting in illicit, non-compliant, and in many cases, dangerous vapes becoming more accessible to children,” writes John Dunne, UKVIA Director-General. The organisation further suggests that the ban targets a vilified segment of the market while potentially pushing users back to combustible cigarettes.

This argument resonates with a recent Cochrane review published in late 2023 indicating that e-cigarettes are a more effective stop-smoking aid than Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), such as nicotine gum or patches, with 14 in 100 people likely to successfully quit using vapes. The analysis compared the results for different stop-smoking aids across 300 clinical trials involving more than 150,000 participants and highlights the reduction role of vaping for adult smokers.

The study is in stark contrast to the UK ban, which could potentially influence future FCTC discussions and create inconsistencies in global efforts towards tobacco control. Further, it appears to ignore years of demonstrable evidence by the UK’s former Public Health England (PHE) and will result in the global punishment of responsible businesses and potentially drive consumers towards a black market.

Closer to home, the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) is similarly concerned about the potential introduction of such a ban. Current efforts to legislate stringent controls of vaping through the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery System Control Bill have clearly demonstrated government’s lack of willingness to embrace tobacco harm reduction and its positive consequences for tobacco control. It has become abundantly clear that government is regulating more out of disdain than it is out of concern for smokers and nicotine users. VPASA CEO Asanda Gcoyi says that the association has always emphasised the importance of evidence-based regulations that acknowledge the potential of vapes as a harm-reduction tool for adult smokers.

“Despite many studies supporting EVPs as a smoking-cessation tool, it continues to be regarded in the same way as tobacco products that decades of research have proven to be harmful to people’s health,” she adds. “This ban serves as a cautionary tale, raising serious concerns for the international community and highlighting the need for careful considerations of overly restrictive policies and a balanced approach that prioritises evidence-based decision-making. We urge the South African government to learn from this and avoid similar policies that could both harm adult smokers seeking less-harmful alternatives and stifle a responsible industry.”

While well-intended, the UK’s ban on disposable vapes has the capability of causing widespread harm to a fledgling global industry with ambitious harm-reduction goals. The decision demands a nuanced approach and raises questions about the balance between public health concerns and individual choice, the role of evidence in policymaking and the interconnectedness of global markets and global tobacco control efforts. With South Africa in the midst of its own regulatory dilemma, it is essential for stakeholders across government and industry to carefully consider the UK’s experience and prioritise science-based policies that protect public health while respecting individual rights and fostering responsible industry practices.


BBC: Disposable vapes to be banned for children’s health, government says

AP News: The UK will ban disposable vapes and curb candy-flavored e-cigarettes that attract children under 18

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