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The epidemic’s metaphorical, but the problem of cute disposables is all too real

Misuse of the word “epidemic” has been associated with criticism of vaping almost from the beginning – including among public health professionals, who really should know better – but it was former US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb, almost five years ago, who probably did most to establish the phrase “youth vaping epidemic” as a legislators’ and media cliché.

Two former US surgeons general – Jerome Adams and Vivek Murthy – have also been serially guilty of the same terminological inexactitude.

For those still labouring under a delusion about its true meaning, an epidemic is a contagious disease that spreads rapidly and widely among the people of a given area. Since vaping is neither contagious nor a disease, it can’t be described as an epidemic – at least not with the level of accuracy one should be able to expect from scientists and people who write laws. Sadly, that expectation is confounded more often than not.

A prominent culprit this week was paediatric respiratory consultant Mike Kean, vice president of the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH). Kean made national headlines when he told a press conference: “Youth vaping is fast becoming an epidemic among children, and I fear that if action is not taken, we will find ourselves sleepwalking into a crisis.”


Pink, toy-shaped and illegal


Of course, the good doctor was also using the term “sleepwalking” metaphorically there, but we can forgiven him for that.

And there may be more than environmental reasons – compelling as they are – to nod along in agreement when he joins the growing chorus calling for a ban on disposable e-cigarettes.

“There is absolutely no reason that these cheap, readily available, brightly coloured, recreational products should be single use,” Kean said.

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    Of course, there are reasons – market reasons. At least one of which is closely related to those bright colours and recreational quality. To which he might reasonably have added flavours (apply the adjective “kid-friendly” if you like) and, significantly, the names given to flavours.

    On the same day the paediatricians made their plea for a disposables ban, Durham County Council told local press about the latest haul of illegal vapes nabbed by its Trading Standards department.

    Councillor John Shuttleworth, whose varied responsibilities include community safety, told The Northern Echo: “It was particularly concerning to find a pink toy-shaped vape branded as a strawberry ice cream ‘Twister Bar’ and with a cartoon illustration on the side. It’s made to look appealing to children yet it contains nicotine and has a tank capacity of 20 ml, which works out at about 7,000 puffs. That’s ten times the legal limit.”


    The flavours argument


    It’s not easy to see any justifiable reason for that, either. And ECigIntelligence understands that for all the sound and fury around kids’ vaping, UK Trading Standards spend 80% of their enforcement time on tank sizes, not under-age sales.

    Shuttleworth said it was the first time the Durham council had come across the Twister Bar, but he and his Trading Standards team might be interested to know that it’s quick and easy to find and buy – in bulk if you want – on any one of half a dozen UK websites.

    The argument is made by many reputable and responsible advocates of smoking harm reduction that e-cig flavours play an important role in attracting and keeping users away from combustibles. That they are meant to appeal to grown-ups, not children.

    The very existence of products like the Twister Bar – which, oddly, is marketed as disposable even though apparently both rechargeable and refillable – makes that argument harder to sustain.

    Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff

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    Aidan Semmens