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The Vaping Crisis in the UK: A Dark Cloud Of Uncertainty

The vaping crisis in the UK has reached a critical juncture leaving policymakers, health experts, and the public grappling with concerns over its impact on public health. While vaping was initially touted as a safer alternative to traditional smoking in a 2015 landmark report by Public Health England, recent developments have cast doubt on its long-term safety.

There has been a dramatic rise in the popularity of disposable e-cigarettes or vapes in the UK since 2021. An estimated 4.3 million people in Britain vape now, compared to 800,000 a decade ago. With the UK vaping market estimated at 3 billion pounds a year and growing by 5% each year, 12 to 18-year-olds have been seen to be most attracted to it a stark rise from 0.4% to a whopping 54.8% using vapes in just 15 months. 


Vapes are available in different colours, shapes and sizes


Initially, vaping was considered to be 95% healthier than smoking and was proposed as an alternative because of the lack of cancer-causing tar or carbon monoxide. However, over the years, researchers, especially those from the US, have raised concerns about vape consumption being linked to an increased risk of developing lung diseases and asthma. Their studies have shown that some flavoured e-liquids contain certain carcinogens such as formaldehyde and pulegone, and also nicotine which might be a mildly toxic substance but can lead to cardiac issues. Due to these concerns, over 40 countries, such as India, Japan, and Argentina, have taken the move to ban the sale of e-cigarettes altogether.

Most high streets are now flooded with shops selling a variety of vapes available in different shapes, sizes, colours, and flavours ranging from orange gummy bear to mint tobacco. The availability of such a wide range of options has set off alarm bells across the country regarding its impact on public health, especially children. The colourful packaging and low prices have attracted teenagers the most, setting the stage for addiction and posing what experts have termed an “epidemic” among teenagers. Dr. Mike McKean, vice-president of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, and a pediatric respiratory consultant told The Guardian, “It took decades to understand the relationship of cigarette smoking to cancer and respiratory illnesses – my worry is we could be sleepwalking into a similar situation here”. The college took a carefully considered call before calling for a complete ban on vapes to help deal with the “epidemic” of child vaping.

Vapes available on most high streets

Although it is illegal to sell nicotine vapes to anyone below 18 years of age, the number of children smoking disposable e-cigarettes shows otherwise. NHS figures for 2021 indicate that 1 in 5 15-year-olds are smoking vapes, and this number is expected to be significantly higher this year. Data from Action on Smoking and Healthdata also states that the use of vapes among 11-17-year-olds has risen by almost 50% since last year.

Schools across the UK have also reported an increase in the number of students who have been vaping on school premises. Students use going to the washroom as an excuse to indulge in vaping and discuss different vaping techniques that have become hugely popular on TikTok. Due to this, many schools have had to install vape smoke detectors in their washrooms. Teenagers often exhaust their entire allowance on different flavours and exchange them with peers. The sale of most of these vapes happens in a largely unregulated industry against the backdrop of inadequate testing, they have been found to contain high levels of chromium and lead, which can affect the nervous system and brain development. 

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reported last month that social media has played a huge role in promoting vaping to kids, employing different baits like discounts, giveaways, and paid gen-Z influencers. They allege that 40% of the audience exposed to such content is under 25, while almost 16 million are under 18. While vape companies have maintained that they practise responsible marketing and that their products cater to an adult audience only, the effects of their campaigns state otherwise.

Children sharing vapes

Vape companies such as British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International sponsor music festivals like Tomorrowland to promote their products they flood social media with direct product marketing, brand collaborations, and direct promotions via influencers and advertisements. These tactics are directly accessible to teenagers who live and breathe on social media sites like Instagram and TikTok. 

Besides being harmful to children, vapes are turning out to pose a risk to environmental wellbeing as well. Close to 2 million single-use vapes are disposed of each week in the UK ultimately ending up choking landfills with 10,000 kgs of lithium from e-cigarette batteries each year infiltrating nearby waterways with toxic nickel, cobalt, and organic solvents. 

These lithium-ion batteries have the potential to be charged and discharged over 450 times leading to a massive wastage of resources that could be optimised for productive eco-friendly solutions, such as batteries for electric cars. 

UK government attempts to create a smoke-free generation

On October 12, 2023, in a bid to create a smoke-free generation, the UK government launched a consultation on proposals to understand the public health and environmental complications of vaping inviting views on the sale of disposable vapes and also the packaging and promotion of vapes to children. Ministers are considering introducing a new tax on vapes to create a smoke-free generation and gradually implement a complete ban on smoking for children. After the eight-week consultation, they plan on introducing tighter restrictions on vaping, phasing out the sale of e-cigarettes, and making it illegal to sell vapes to children 14 or younger.  

Although vaping has led to a considerable decline in the number of people smoking cigarettes over the years in the UK, it comes with the cost of inflicting serious health complications among its consumers, especially teenagers. The long-term effects of vaping on a person’s health are still hazy contributing to the perception of it being a better alternative to smoking. 

Britain’s vaping crisis calls for prompt action and a multidimensional approach requiring stricter regulation, comprehensive education, robust research, and a delicate balance between harm reduction and public health. Policymakers, health authorities, manufacturers, and the public must work together toward a future where vaping products are safe, properly regulated, and used responsibly. 

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