What could the future hold for a smoke-free UK with tighter vaping restrictions?

Prediction is a dangerous thing, but perhaps being caught wrong-footed is worse. And in the case of the British government’s new raft of proposals on regulating tobacco products, it’s possible to make some tentative predictions merely from the questions being asked in a current consultation.

This covers, in essence, two completely different ideas.

First, there’s the plan to create a smoke-free generation by making it illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone born on or after 1st January 2009. This would include heated tobacco but not vapour products, which – it’s now clear – have been explicitly excluded from the proposal.

On this, the government is principally asking a straight yes/no question: should we or shouldn’t we? This may indicate that it’s still uncertain about the level of public support such a measure would enjoy, and it’s a valid concern.


A consultation with a sceptical public


Though there may be some libertarian misgivings around the forcible prevention of smoking itself in any circumstances (not just in public places), stronger, broader-based opposition is likely to be based on other issues.

Innate British scepticism about what are perceived as “nanny state” rules will lead many people to doubt a proposal that would make a currently legal adult action illegal. And the seeming unfairness of applying different rules to two adults – indeed two adults very close in age – which is an inevitable result of generational age bans like this is also unlikely to go down well with much of the British public. Even if they would like to see smoking disappear, they may well feel this is not an equitable way of doing it.

How clearly those positions will show through in the consultation is open to question; as always, only those strongly invested in the issue will bother to reply. But particularly if the proposal comes down to a free vote in Parliament (one where members are not obliged to follow party lines) as prime minister Rishi Sunak has suggested, elected politicians will be well aware of what their voters are likely to think.

Moreover, if the concept proves unpopular, it could turn out to be a useful weapon for the opposition Labour Party in its next election battle against Sunak’s Conservatives – particularly if Labour can come up with other, more palatable ways to achieve similar objectives.


More focused when it comes to vaping


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    The other main part of the consultation covers vaping specifically, and here the government seems much more confident, at least in some areas.

    On flavours, for example, while it does ask whether there should be any restrictions at all, the consultation is much more focused on determining exactly what form those restrictions should take (the options are allowing tobacco only; tobacco, mint and menthol; or all those plus fruit flavours). The consultation very much implies that restrictions are a given, and only their precise shape is up for discussion.

    The policy options given on disposables, however, are less granular. The consultation simply asks whether disposables should be restricted, and if so whether that should take the form of a ban, without detailing any alternative possibilities.

    Elsewhere in the consultation, we see the same pattern: highly specific choices on regulating point-of-sale displays and packaging, for example (with standardised or “plain” packaging as one of the options), but only the most general questions on issues such as taxation and the possible regulation of nicotine pouches.


    Could seemingly mundane legislation impact liberties?


    None of these is likely to be a headline-grabber in the same way as the generational age ban, or to arouse the same kind of mistrust.

    Many Britons see vaping as merely a niche fad and neither know nor care much about it – certainly not enough to start thinking about nuances like the role of flavours in adult cessation. These proposals will seem, to the majority, like uninteresting technical legislation without any obvious impact on liberties.

    So with the vaping-specific proposals, it is likely that expert opinion rather than politicians’ concerns about widespread public reaction will carry more weight.

    Of course, law can be contrary to public opinion anyway – see, for example, the recent survey in Australia that showed overwhelming support for vaping products to be sold through regular retail channels.

    But judging by what we can deduce from the way the UK consultation is presented, it may be safe to predict that while a generational age ban is far from a certainty, some level of flavour ban is very likely.

    – Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Fernando Venzano

    Barnaby Page

    Editorial director
    Before joining ECigIntelligence in early 2014 as one of its first employees, Barnaby had a 30-year career as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and online services, working in Canada, the US and the Middle East as well as his current British location. He has edited publications covering fields including technology and the advertising industry, and was launch editor of the first large daily online news service in the British regional media. Barnaby also writes on classical music and film for a number of publications. Barnaby manages the editorial and reporting teams and works closely with the analyst teams, to ensure that all content meets high standards of quality and relevance. He also writes for the site occasionally, mostly on science-related issues, and is a member of the Association of British Science Writers.