Over the last week we have seen many news outlets reporting on the 'illegal' disposable vapes being sold in the UK. Specifically, this relates to the popular Elf Bar product. In an independent investigation by a Daily Mail journalist, three flavours, purchased from three retailers were found to be overfilled with e-liquid by up to 50%.
In light of this news, both the brand owner and the UK government agencies are conducting a thorough investigation. Following this, they will urgently agree on a path of corrective actions. In the meantime, Totally Wicked has taken the precautionary measure of removing the three products in question from sale. This is following direction by our Trading Standards Primary Authority.
Following the discovery of these illegal disposable vapes, we must act with due diligence and precaution. However we are entirely clear that this is not a product quality issue, nor one of consumer safety.
Why the illegal disposable vapes breached regulations
As is often the case, many media headlines have misrepresented the findings. Making statements that products have '50% higher nicotine content than the legal amount'. While this makes a good headline, it is not factually correct.
All vaping products sold in the UK are governed under the “The Tobacco and Related Products Regulations” (TRPR). The TRPR guidelines state that for products sold in the UK:
- The legal limit for an e-cigarette tank is to hold a maximum of 2ml of e-liquid
- E-liquid must not have a greater nicotine content of more than 20mg or 2%
- Nicotine-containing e-liquids cannot be sold in containers bigger than 10ml
The single-use vapes examined contained up to 3ml of e-liquid. While this is a very clear breach of the legal limit of 2ml, the nicotine concentration is within the 20mg guideline. This means that users of these illegal disposable vapes will not be ingesting more nicotine than the advertised 2% legal limit with each 'puff'. However, the product may last longer. We should also consider that the battery cannot be recharged in a single-use vape. This means that in many cases, the battery will expire before the full 3ml of e-liquid can be consumed.
It's not surprising that the discovery of ‘illegal’ disposable vapes in the market has once again thrown the ethical concerns around single-use vapes into the spotlight. People have raised many questions this week about vaping. These include whether these products are exclusively being used by ex-smokers, concerns around youth vaping, and the safety of e-cigarettes in general. Let's take a look at what we know:
Are Single-Use Vapes Encouraging Non-Smokers to Vape?
The simplicity of single-use vapes has certainly made vaping much more accessible to many people. In September 2022, the anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) reported the highest number of vapers ever seen in the UK. In the report released, 4.3M people, or 8.3% of all adults in GB were recorded as now using e-cigarettes.
Also included in the stats was that 57% of these current British vapers have given up smoking. This was around 2.45M in total From this evidence, it would appear that vaping is still helping people to quit.
We have also previously discussed how many current vapers would not consider themselves 'smokers' due to only being social smokers. Along with how many 'would be' recreational smokers are now opting for vaping instead. It was once common to see beer gardens on a Friday night filled with smokers. You're now more likely to see people socialising with a drink in one hand, and a single-use vape in the other. Given the relatively low harm of vaping compared to smoking, this can only be a positive move.
Disposable Vapes Are Equivalent to 20 Cigarettes
The statistic is often mentioned when discussing single-use vapes. You may have seen reports that the illegal disposable vapes are equivalent to up to 30-40 cigarettes. There is no easy way to do a direct comparison of the nicotine content of smoking cigarettes versus using a vape. The way nicotine is absorbed into the body when using a vape is different from when you smoke. It also varies massively depending on how you vape. Longer, deeper puffs will deliver more nicotine for example than somebody who takes short puffs.
The "equivalent to 20 cigarettes" line is derived from a fairly simple equation:
The highest likely absorbed amount of nicotine from a cigarette is 2mg x 20 cigarettes per day = 40mg.
A 2ml disposable device of 20mg nicotine would be: 2ml x 20mg/ml = 40mg.
However, one study that looked at the delivery of nicotine found some interesting results. Those that used an 18mg nicotine strength e-liquid after 5 minutes of use, absorbed around one-third to one-fifth of the amount of nicotine compared to smoking. This would suggest that e-cigarettes tend to deliver nicotine slower than combustible cigarettes containing tobacco.
Illegal Disposable Vapes – Should We Be Concerned About Nicotine?
However, nicotine shouldn’t be our main concern when comparing cigarettes and vaping. Many people still believe it's the nicotine in cigarettes that causes lung damage and disease. Nicotine does not cause cancer or any smoking-related disease. Of the three main causes of death from smoking, lung cancer arises from direct exposure of the lungs to the carcinogens in tobacco smoke. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) from the irritant effects of smoke, and cardiovascular disease from the effects of smoke on blood vessel walls.
Cigarette smoke contains over 4000 chemicals. 44 of these are so carcinogenic or directly toxic that the WHO has prioritised them for measurement and reporting. E-cigarette vapour typically contains just two of these chemicals (formaldehyde and acetaldehyde). In both cases these are at levels that are far, far lower than in tobacco smoke. In fact they are under safe workplace exposure levels in many instances.
Are E-cigarettes Safe?
There have now been several long-term studies regarding the safety of vaping and all have been positive. Independent sources such as OHID (Previously Public Health England) have stated that vaping is 95% safer than smoking.
We also saw vaping featured last year in Javed Khan's four most critical actions in reducing smoking rates across the UK. This support is further built on backing over the last few years by major health organisations that support vaping. It follows positive statements about the benefits of vaping made by The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), and the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID, previously part of Public Health England). In 2021 NICE also updated their guidance to quit services across the UK. They recommend that they should ensure that they make a vape option available to smokers looking to quit.
Vaping-Related Hospital Admissions Have Doubled From 2021
Figures obtained by news channel LBC from NHS Digital showed 344 recorded hospital admissions that were recorded as being vaping-related. 32 admissions of patients under the age of 18 were recorded as being linked to a vaping-related disorder.
While we must certainly take these concerns seriously. These figures are still small by comparison with smoking which causes more than five hundred thousand hospital admissions every year.
Vaping is not risk-free, but what we do know is that the alternative of smoking is far, far worse.
Teen Vaping – Are Single-Use Products Targeting Youths?
Perhaps the most concerning statistic to most people is the rise in vaping-related hospital admissions in patients under the age of 18.
Vaping is an age-restricted category. Much like alcohol, it is intended to be accessed by adults of an appropriate age. Any responsible vape retailer will operate a strict 'Challenge 25' age verification policy for people buying any vaping product. There will unfortunately always be some independent traders who are prepared to supply alcohol and nicotine-containing products to underage youths. Trading Standards have been sweeping the country and penalising those who do so. Any vendor found selling vaping products to someone under-18 faces hefty fines, or even having their shop closed down.
Our strict Challenge 25 policy
Totally Wicked operate a strict "Challenge 25" procedure in all our stores. This includes any suspicion we have for 'proxy buying'. This is a procedure that we police tightly, sending our own mystery shoppers into stores to ensure that the correct age-verification process is taking place.
Teen vaping and smoking rates among young people
When we look at the facts, recent statistics show a 50% increase in the current use of e-cigarettes from 2018 to 2021 among 11-15-year-olds. This rise, from 6% to 9% is concerning and has led some media outlets to maintain a grossly negative view of vaping. However, over the same period, the "current" youth smoking rate has decreased by 40%, from 5% to 3%. Regular smoking has fallen from 2% to 1% among the same age group.
Of course, no one right-minded would ever encourage youth vaping. However, with smoking rates decreasing as vaping rates rise, how much of the focus of attention should be on youth vaping? Smoking is 20 times as harmful as vaping. It is really important not to lose sight of that fact when encouraging teenagers towards a healthy lifestyle.
Is Vaping Brands Sponsoring Local Sports Teams Ethical?
On the subject of youth vaping, there have been questions raised over whether it is responsible for vaping brands to sponsor sports teams and events where underage youths will be exposed to the brand. There is no arguing that sports sponsorship was a longstanding and effective form of indirect advertising for the tobacco industry. It was often criticised for increasing the uptake of smoking among young people.
Naturally, the question would now be asked - are vaping brands acting equally irresponsibly by sports partnerships for promotion? Are Vaping brand sponsorships in sports controversial?
Totally Wicked have long-standing partnerships with local clubs Blackburn Rover FC and St Helens R.F.C. At no point during our relationship with these clubs have we seen any evidence to suggest that our sponsorships have encouraged the uptake of vaping amongst underage youths.
Using sponsorship positively to educate and build awareness
Our sponsorships in no way 'glamourise' vaping, but serve to educate and build awareness of vaping as a quit-smoking tool amongst adult smokers. Smoking rates across the UK have fallen to the lowest on record, at 13.3% of the adult population (Blackburn with Darwen sits above this national average at 15.5%). However, smoking remains the primary cause of preventable illness and premature death, accounting for 74,600 deaths a year in England.
Both Blackburn Rovers FC, St Helens R.F.C, and Totally Wicked advocate that vaping has a positive and proven role in supporting the reduction and ultimate eradication of smoking within our communities. We have and will continue to carry out education and awareness initiatives for our fans and communities around the positive role that vaping can play in reducing adult smoking rates. This continued awareness drive is a very positive outcome for our long-standing partnerships.