MPs have urged the Government to impose heavier restrictions on disposable vapes to curb their increased use by children.
The call by the Commons Health and Social Care Committee followed a consultation launched earlier this year by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities with a remit was " to identify opportunities to reduce the number of children (people aged under 18) accessing and using vape products, while ensuring they are still easily available as a quit aid for adult smokers".
In a letter to England's Health Secretary Steve Barclay this week, the chair of the cross-party committee, Steve Brine, urged "much stronger action to prevent children from obtaining and using vapes", balanced against "the need to discourage a black market in more harmful noncompliant vapes".
The committee cited Public Health England’s finding that vaping is "substantially safer" than smoking. It also noted that the evidence on whether vaping acts as a gateway to tobacco smoking was "unclear and contested".
Existing Measures 'Not Working Effectively'
"What is clear is that there is a rising trend in the number of children vaping," Mr Brine said in his letter, and that " existing measures to prevent under-18s from accessing vapes are not working effectively".
The committee heard anecdotal evidence of vape products appealing to children, with one head teacher saying that some flavours "read like a sweet shop" and were "clearly pitched at a younger audience".
The industry had taken "some steps" to discourage products and flavours designed to appeal directly to children, the committee acknowledged, but had "not gone far enough", and it was "disingenuous" to claim otherwise.
Surveys have suggested that the proportion of children who have tried vaping is increasing, with concerns raised that those who vape regularly might graduate to smoking. A study earlier this year reported that children who smoked were more likely also to have tried vaping. Those who concurrently vaped and smoked in their early teens were more likely to continue smoking, and the authors described them as the "guinea pig generation", saying that those who vaped could "become entrenched into tobacco use".
Smoking Rates Declining Among Children
Some experts disagreed with that analysis, though. Caitlin Notley, professor of addiction sciences at the University of East Anglia, said that "a more appropriate conclusion" would be that children who use tobacco were also more likely to try vapes, and that such experimentation was associated with continued tobacco smoking. Professor Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London, said: "If vaping led to smoking, we would see an increase in smoking rates among young people since vaping came along. In reality, the decline in smoking among young people has accelerated."
Black Market Concerns
Concerns were also raised about children obtaining illegal vapes containing harmful or banned products. The Independent British Vape Trade Association told the committee that problems with legitimate products were "uncommon". Both industry and health experts warned that restricting legal vapes might encourage a black market in unregulated and illegal products, potentially exposing children and other users to "greater harm".
Disposable vapes have been particularly criticised, and not only for their appeal to children. Earlier this month the Local Government Association advocated for a ban on the sale of single use vapes by 2024.
However, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) told the committee that banning disposable vapes would "do nothing to increase enforcement capacity" and was "likely to have significant unintended consequences" by encouraging the illicit market.
The Government has initiated a review of fines for selling vapes to under-18s, and the Department of Health and Social Care has allocated £3 million for an 'illicit vapes enforcement squad', led by Trading Standards.
However, a call by Dr Neil Hudson MP (Con Penrith and The Border) to make vapes prescription-only was rejected by health minister Neil O'Brien on Thursday, who said there are "no medicinally licensed vaping products approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency" and therefore "the Government is not currently considering making vaping products prescription-only".
The Committee concluded that it believes that "the Government can maintain a public health message on the potential value of vapes as a tool to help smokers to quit, while ensuring that its messaging and education, enforcement and regulatory approach keeps them out of sight and reach of children".