What’s the biggest challenge facing the British e-cigarette and novel nicotine sectors?
It depends who you ask – or at least, that’s a lesson I’m taking from two conferences I attended in London over recent weeks. In both of them, the question of youth vaping inevitably loomed large, but in such different ways.
At the (always excellent) E-Cigarette Summit, geared towards health and policy issues, the focus was on issues such as perceptions of harm from vaping (worryingly high in the UK now as well as the US), the potentially negative inadvertent impacts of anti-youth-vaping measures on tobacco harm reduction among adults, and so on. Behind all this lurked another question, mostly unspoken: whether youth usage might not be, at least, the lesser of two evils if the alternative is smoking.
But at the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) event the previous week, much more oriented to the industry, the emphasis was understandably enough on the British government’s recently flagged plans to impose further restrictions on the sector. There was no suggestion here that under-age vaping might be (even in an abstract way) remotely desirable, because it – or more specifically, the actions being proposed to address it – was seen as the biggest problem of all.
Licensing of retailers emerged as a popular suggestion for keeping vapes out of young hands, though it’s worth bearing in mind both that licensing doesn’t necessarily eliminate what is already an inherently illegal trade and, as Craig Copland from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) was to point out at the Summit event, that the percentage of retailers failing test under-age purchase attempts for vapour products is roughly the same as those failing for alcohol. And all alcohol retailers are licensed.
With disposables, worries go beyond youth use
Of course, the growth of youth vaping via disposable products has also brought much more attention to the sector’s environmental impacts. This may seem, on the surface, an easier issue to address; after all, few people are going to go deliberately out of their way to be un-green if you make it easy for them to be environmentally responsible. There’s no temptation the same way there is with vaping, there’s not the thrill of the forbidden, there’s nothing cool about waste.
But speakers at the UKVIA event brought home how far from simple it really is. Many of the challenges are not in the inherent recyclability of the products, but lie with consumers themselves. For example, they can be ignorant of recyclability, and may not even realise there’s a battery in an e-cig. The very term “disposable” may encourage a throwaway attitude.
Then there are structural requirements. According to Paul Carvell from The Delivery Group, a company providing mail distribution services, there are currently around 13,000 collection points for used vapes in the UK. He estimates there could be as many as 200,000, including retailers and places where the devices are frequently used.
That’s not the end of the story, either. Collecting vapes for recycling is all very well, and may make the industry look good, but the collection is only of any value if the recycling itself also takes place. How can we ensure that it actually happens? And how do we fund it?
Some potentially nice solutions
According to Carvell, collecting a vape could cost £0.10, while recycling itself could cost a further £0.15. This adds up to a noticeable, albeit not punitive, proportion of a disposable’s cost. But that’s where, finally, we run into some potentially nice solutions rather than a litany of problems.
Increasing the cost of disposables, whether through taxation or by manufacturer choice, could be a win-win. It would make recycling costs less of a burden on the consumer, it would surely deter some youth purchase, and, if prices were being raised because the units had more capacity or can deliver far more puffs (as Smoore promises for its so-called Disposable 2.0 products), it would result in fewer being discarded.
Let’s not be too blithely optimistic about it. The devil is always in the detail. Yet this shows that, at least, there is a middle ground between doing nothing and banning everything. There can be subtler interventions which achieve the desired ends.
After all, as I said while sitting on a panel at the UKVIA event: the UK’s honeymoon with vaping may be over, but that doesn’t mean we have to proceed straight to the divorce.
– Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff
Photo: Ioann-Mark Kuznietsov