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UK health experts fear sharp rise in popularity of e-cigarettes among teenagers, as seen in the US
Health campaigners have expressed alarm after it emerged that a loophole in the law means it is legal for marketing companies to hand out vapes to children for free.
British American Tobacco (BAT) is investigating after a 17-year-old was offered a free sample of the company’s Vype brand. The minor was not told that the product contained nicotine and was not asked for proof of age.
Vape companies regularly distribute free samples to adults using paid, third-party promotional companies operating in city centres and at festivals and transport hubs. The promotional teams are young, personable and sport the livery of the vape brand they represent. Some use additional free offers – such as soft drinks – to engage with passersby.
Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) said teams working for Vype had been recently promoting the brand in Brighton, Bristol and Bath, where a 17-year-old girl working on a market stall was approached and offered a free sample, in return for her email address and with no attempt to establish her age.
“The hypocrisy of BAT is staggering,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Ash. “The company’s website piously states: ‘It’s essential that any tobacco or nicotine products are not marketed to youth. Given the nature of our products, we take seriously our commitment to market them responsibly and only to adults.’
“How can they say that doling freebies out like sweets to children counts as responsible marketing?”
When it was alerted to claims that minors were being offered free vapes, Ash approached National Trading Standards and was shocked to learn that a loophole in the law means it is not illegal to hand out free e-cigarettes to children. This is because e-cigarettes are not covered by the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act “prohibition of free distribution” rules as they are not considered a tobacco product.
And Ash said that the wording of the relevant sections of the Tobacco and Related Products regulations pertaining to e-cigarettes was too vague when it came to prohibiting the distribution of free products to minors.
Pushing e-cigarettes on young people is a concern for health experts, who fear that the UK will go the way of the US, where vaping’s popularity among teenagers has reached epidemic proportions.
In 2019, a quarter of high-school students in the US reported using electronic nicotine products within the past 30 days and 11.7% reported daily use.
But youth takeup in the UK has been much slower. Regular use among teenagers doubled from 2.4% in 2015 to 4.9% last year.
“A review of the regulations is required by law and is expected to be launched imminently,” Arnott said. “We have written to the public health minister to make her aware of this gaping hole in the government’s e-cigarette regulations and to urge her to use the review to plug this legal loophole. This is yet another example of Big Tobacco saying one thing and doing another, living up to the letter of the law but not the spirit.”,” Arnott said.
BAT said: “We take our responsibility to prevent underage access to vaping products extremely seriously and are clear that they are intended for adult smokers and nicotine users only.
“Our one-to-one consumer engagement activities in the UK market are conducted by a third-party supplier who has been extensively trained to ensure that the only people who are engaged are over 18 years old, are an existing smoker, and are informed that the product contains nicotine. We are speaking to our third-party supplier about this alleged incident.”
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