The UK government has recently been mulling lifting the age limit on buying cigarettes and vaping products to 21.
There are complex arguments around raising the age limits on cigarettes (think personal freedom, whether you have a choice when you are addicted, net public health gain and so on). But this is a vaping blog, so I’m purely going to stick to the issue of electronic cigarettes here.
To help put this article together I spoke to Louise Ross. Decades in smoking cessation, running a stop smoking service, chairing the New Nicotine Alliance and being business development manager for an innovative stop smoking app means there are few better people to understand the consequences of vape legislation.
Young people will still have access to cigarettes (but not vapes)
First, it’s important to realise that just because you ban something does not mean that people will stop using it.
The black market in cigarettes is huge. In fact, I’ve spoken to stop smoking managers on the coast of England who tell me that in their areas there is more black market tobacco sold than legal tobacco.
That means that 18 - 21 years old will still be able to start smoking (although hopefully less will do so), but without legal access to the UK’s most popular method of quitting.
Indeed, the average age people start smoking is around 14 years old, despite the fact that under 18’s can only obtain tobacco illegally.
Louise Ross told us:
“I’ve known many people who started smoking at 12 years old. They already have to wait 6 years before they can access one of the best routes out of smoking. With an age limit increase, they would then have to wait another 3 years before they have access to vaping.
“People will still start smoking and get addicted to smoking, but without the access to reduced-harm alternatives. Some people would smoke for an extra three years before they could access vaping.
“That’s bad, because the longer you smoke, the more smoking becomes intertwined with established habits and the harder it is to stop smoking when you do try. If anything, I’d like to see young people in the most vulnerable groups have some route to vaping.
“These vulnerable groups include people in the youth justice system, looked-after children, and users of mental health services. They smoke more than their peers in the general population, and need help to access harm-reduced products.”
Young people tend to vape to quit smoking
Believe the headlines and you might think that vaping is a route to nicotine addiction for young people.
If that was true, it would be a valid reason to restrict vaping. In that case, an age restriction on vaping would mean fewer people using nicotine.
In fact, data has consistently shown that the majority of young vapers in the UK are current or former smokers.
Many are using or have used vapes to stop smoking. In fact, NHS data tells us that 39% of young people who successfully quit smoking did so with electronic cigarettes. (Source: NHS) That’s consistent with other data that tells us vaping is the most popular way to quit smoking.
Removing the protective effect of vaping
Ex ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) chief Clive Bates has previously argued that vaping likely has a protective effect against smoking. Young people who would have tried smoking, but try vaping, are less likely to take up smoking.
Louise Ross agreed.
“For some young people, especially those who spend time with people who are smoking cigarettes or cannabis, vaping offers an opportunity to gain a degree of acceptability without the same harm as with cigarettes.”
There’s another point to consider here. In addition to being less harmful than cigarettes - and carrying just 0.5% of the cancer risk - there is strong evidence to suggest that vaping is less addictive.
If young people chose to vape instead of smoke, there is a good possibility that they will not use nicotine for the rest of their lives, or use it for recreational purposes only.
Black market vapes
Currently, the vast majority of vapes in the UK are sold legally, and there are strict rules to ensure that both devices and vape juice are as safe as possible.
However, adding restrictions on vaping could encourage a black market to flourish. This is likely to lead to low-quality or contaminated e-liquid being sold, posing an unnecessary risk to users and further damaging confidence in vaping as a reduced-harm alternative to smoking.
There is a parallel for this with cannabis in the USA. In the US, illegal cannabis liquid mixed with Vitamin E acetate caused a lung disease (often wrongly associated with vaping). The disease was more prevalent in places where cannabis was illegal.
Sticking vaping in the same boat as smoking
The UK government, along with key organisations and charities, has no doubt that vaping is vastly better than smoking.
In fact, vaping is a key part of its Smokefree 2030 strategy.
By restricting the age of sale for vaping products along with smoking, the government would be sending a message that vaping is just as bad as cigarettes.
“The current perception of vaping is already a disaster,” said Louise Ross.
“Many people - including some health professionals - wrongly believe that vaping is as bad or worse than smoking. In fact, some health professionals have even advised people to carry on smoking, arguing that at least we know what is wrong with smoking.
“I believe this damaging perception is what is causing the phenomenon of dual usage (both smoking and vaping). The confidence needed to fully switch to vaping is being continually undermined by misinformation. Raising the smoking age to 21, but keeping the vaping age to 18, would send a positive message that vaping is less harmful than smoking”.
Adults should have the right to make their own decisions
Louise Ross was also keen to point out that 21 year olds are adults. For years they have had the right to drive a car, to drink alcohol and to die for their country in a foreign war.
“Saying that people just under 21 can’t vape is ridiculous. By that age, you have the ability to do your own research and make your own decisions. There is no reason on earth why someone just under the age of 21 should not have the right to choose reduced-harm alternatives to cigarettes.”
Let’s not mess with a UK success story
Vaping has been a huge success story for the United Kingdom. Smoking rates have plummeted and fewer young people are taking up smoking. Many people have used vaping to quit smoking - and millions have gone on to stop using nicotine altogether.
Much of this is down to vaping and much of it despite, rather than because of, government intervention. If we have any hope of achieving the UK’s smoke free goals, the absolute priority must be to reduce smoking rates. To do so, we need to avoid messing with the most effective method of cessation we have had to date.