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Delays in Regulatory Reform Leave Children Exposed to E-Cigarette Promotion

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Public health charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) today criticised the Government for failing to address loopholes that allow children to be given e-cigarettes as freebies although the law bans their sale to those under 18. New findings, published today, also find additional opportunities for regulations to protect children.

It is now two months since the Government should have published its review of e-cigarette and tobacco regulations. ASH, in collaboration with academic collaborative SPECTRUM, provided a thorough response to the consultation on regulations identifying a number of opportunities to regulate products more effectively. This week also marks two years since the Government Green Paper on prevention was published in which ‘bold action’ on tobacco was promised but has still failed to materialise.

Interim new findings from ASH, published today in the annual update of its youth survey on e-cigarette use, show there are additional opportunities to protect children. Reducing branding on e-cigarette packaging could reduce their appeal to children while adult smokers are not put off by packaging with less branding.

Youth use of e-cigarettes remains very low in Great Britain with 11% of 11–17-year-olds ever having tried vaping and 1.2% currently using the products. However, concerns have been raised about how products are branded and the extent to which they could appeal to children.

In questions developed in collaboration with academics at King’s College London and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, respondents were shown a range of different packaging of popular vaping brands to test their appeal. While children were more likely to indicate that branded packs were appealing compared with non-branded ones, adult smokers had no preferences between branded or unbranded products.

Action on Smoking and Health deputy chief executive, Hazel Cheeseman said: ‘Currently, youth vaping in this country is not a significant problem, but nor do we want one. E-cigarettes have been a powerful tool to help smokers stop and we want to see many more make the switch. However, we also need to do all we can to avoid uptake in young non-smokers. The time is right for the Government to explore how packaging can be made less appealing to children while also understanding how we can best expand the appeal of products among adult smokers.’

Postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London, Sarah Aleyan, said: ‘There is little regulation of e-cigarette packaging in the UK. This new research suggests that taking action to regulate e-cigarette packaging could help decrease the appeal of e-cigarettes to children. Given there is still some confusion between vaping and smoking, it is essential that any packaging requirements make clear the distinction between e-cigarettes and tobacco products.’

In June, ASH reported that adult smokers were still not switching to vaping in sufficient numbers and poor understanding about the relative safety of e-cigarettes compared to smoking may be inhibiting people from making healthier choices.

In addition to testing some of the biggest brands on the market, the charity also tested the appeal to children of ‘candy’ branded e-liquids currently available in the UK. These were not included in the survey of adults and were shown to children in a separate later survey. When the visual elements of the packs were removed, a much lower proportion of children expressed a preference for products than for liquids with brand imagery.

ASH and the SPECTRUM public health research consortium believe it is essential to remove loopholes in the existing regulations, which expose children to risk, which they highlighted in their response to the consultation which closed in March 2021. Although regulations outlaw the sale of e-cigarettes to children they can be handed out for free. Companies appear willing to use this loophole with Vype (a BAT product) found to be handing out free samples to young people with no age checks in Bristol, Bath, and Brighton and it is likely to have been more widespread than this. The regulations required a report to be published before 20th May 2021, but this did not happen.

Action on Smoking and Health deputy chief executive, Hazel Cheeseman, said: ‘It is unacceptable for it to be legal to hand out e-cigarettes free to children and this is only the most egregious of numerous loopholes in the legislation. The Government post-implementation review should have been published before 20th May this year, but there’s been a deathly silence. When will action be taken to fix this?’

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