The UK's recent unveiling of a total ban on disposable vapes, and additional flavour restrictions, risks undoing the nation's pioneering tobacco harm reduction approach to reducing smoking. Clive Bates joins us in today's episode as we look at the potentially disasterous consequences of a disposable vape ban, as well as the convenient timing of this announcement to coincide with the start of the FCTC COP10 in Panama.
Chapters:0:00 - Coming up on today's programme 0:41 - UK's world-leading THR credibility at stake 1:14 - The youth vaping dilemma 2:31 - Unintended consequences of disposable ban 3:56 - Will tobacco companies benefit from disposable ban? 5:09 - Concerns about illicit vape trade 6:56 - Disposable ban U-turn unlikely 8:37 - Just in time for COP10! 10:12 - Closing remarks
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Joanna Junak: Hello and welcome! I'm Joanna Junak and this is GFN News on GFN.tv. Many saw the UK as a world leader on tobacco harm reduction. But last week British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a plan to ban disposable vapes and impose vape flavour restrictions over fears about youth vaping. Many public health experts have reacted to this news, including Clive Bates, Director of Counterfactual Consulting, who joins us today to tell us more about this surprising news. Hello Clive, nice to see you again on the program. Why does the UK government want to ban disposable wipes?
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Clive Bates: Well, I think it's basically a response to what I would call a panic about youth vaping. We've seen both an increase in youth vaping and an increase in the proportion of young people who use disposable products. So in the simplistic way that politics works, they think that they can deal with youth vaping by banning disposable products, as if when you ban something, it just makes it disappear and that the young people will become abstinent and virtuous. That's not the case. What will happen is some of them will take up smoking. Some of them will use the vapes that aren't banned. Many of them will use illicitly supplied vapes. Some will join the supply chain for illicitly supplied vapes. Some will use pouches. And a small number may quit vaping altogether. Who knows? But the problem when you do these things is you don't get a simple cause and effect. Ban something and it disappears. That just never happens. So in my view, they've made a mistake. They've also made a mistake because these are the products that are really helpful for people in poorer, more disadvantaged communities in taking the first steps from smoking to vaping. And those communities and those older adults are where the problem lies.
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Joanna Junak: You mentioned that disposable products are helpful for people living in poorer, more disadvantaged communities. So will taking away these products cost some to return to smoking?
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Clive Bates: Well, I think it will have on adults, which are the main problem. I mean, the main problem is smoking amongst adults who've been smoking for some decades. You'll see a number of responses. First of all, some people who vape and use these products conveniently will relapse to smoking because that's convenient to some of them. Hopefully we'll try different kinds of vapes. Some of them will access illegal vapes. Some of them will try pouches, maybe some of them. You know, some of them will potentially go from being dual users to being exclusive smokers instead of switching completely. And then you have to think about what happens in the future. And this is where the real problem is. It's not the people who are already vaping because they'll find a way around it, probably. It's the people who would be vaping in the future who are currently smoking. For them, a simple migration option has been denied to them. So getting their foot in the water, their toe in the water to start with, that's been made more difficult. And that means we'll see lower switching rates in future.
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Joanna Junak: And what about tobacco companies? Do you think they may see the ban as a positive influence on their smoke-free businesses?
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Clive Bates: Well, in some ways, it's not so bad for the tobacco companies because they are not big sellers of the disposable products. The disposable products have been eating into their market share. These products are coming in from China and everything, Puff Bar and all of that. They have been very successful in the market and they've been pushing back the tobacco companies, both from the cigarette point of view and the non-disposable vapes point of view. So in some ways it protects their market, frankly, at the expense of greater consumer choice. Although it's more complicated because there's an environmental impact to take into account. And also, you know, From public health point of view, we don't really know what the overall response to this will be. My fear is that on balance it will be negative because more people will smoke and more people will be deterred from switching from smoking to vaping in future.
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Joanna Junak: So if disposable products are going to be banned, what reactions can we expect from people who use these products?
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Clive Bates: This is the point, when you ban something, it doesn't just disappear and everybody then just becomes abstinent and virtuous and does nothing instead. There's a huge range of possible behavioral responses. So what will happen, I mean, some estimates suggest that as much as 50% of the disposable products sold in the UK already are illegally supplied. So that will move to 100%. And that market might expand to take up the slack where the legal market was. So more people will be using illegal vapes. You can be fairly certain of that. Some people will switch to legal vapes. Some people will switch to other nicotine products, some to smoking. It's very, very difficult to call what will actually happen. And lots of different actors are involved in that. So how much enforcement effort goes in? What the practice of retailers is? Will it be easy to get hold of these things? What happens at the border? Will customs intercept big shipments of disposable vapes? Will the disposable vapes manufacturers come up with a workaround? you know, for example, that makes it look as though the products are reusable, even if they're not. So, you know, it's very complicated. But the one thing you can't assume is that everybody who's currently vaping disposables will somehow stop, you know, whether that's adults or kids. And you can't assume that they won't go back to smoking, whether that's adults or kids.
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Joanna Junak: Let's talk now about reactions on this news among health professionals and different associations. How have they reacted? And could their reactions change the government's decision in some way?
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Clive Bates: I think it's quite unlikely that we'll see a U-turn in the near future on this. And the reason is that that measure has been quite popular in the public and the press. But one of the reasons it's popular is that people are completely ill-informed about vaping. So if most of the public thinks it's you know, no less dangerous than smoking or even more dangerous, of course you'd be worried about it and of course you'd be glad to see, you know, tough measures taking place. And if the public understood better that this was an alternative to smoking with negligible or much lower levels of risk, then I don't think there'd be quite the sort of calamity about it. And the government wouldn't have the support that it has for this measure. So it's partly because the government is acting in an environment where there are radical misperceptions about the risks of vaping, that it's able to get this kind of thing through. I think if everybody understood it better, the expert voices would come over more loudly and clearly. And that's where I think the government officials, chief medical officer have let the side down. They should be putting the expert view to government, but they don't seem to have done that.
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Joanna Junak: Yesterday in Panama, the FCTC's 10th conference of the parties started. And last week the UK government introduced its idea of banning disposable products. Do you think there is any connection between the announcement of the ban and COP10?
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Clive Bates: Well, it's quite possible that the UK wanted to get its decisions out before COP10 so it could discuss them at COP10. I mean, many of the delegates at COP10 and the WHO will welcome any sense in which the UK has reversed [Clive Bates]; its pro-harm reduction policy, because in many ways the UK was seen as a holdout against the WHO orthodoxy. which is fundamentally wrong and flawed right from top to bottom but what this will allow them to do is to have a much more comfortable cop where it looks as though everybody's coming on site to decide that vaping is generally not not a good thing or it comes with all these unwanted risks and the risk that the UK will speak out is now sort of diminished because it's now proposing this disposables measures but also other measures on vaping, such as a flavour ban and plain packaging and so on, which all suggests that the UK has turned against vaping, which will be very welcome in Panama, very unwelcome in the UK from a public health point of view and from a rational science point of view. But that's not what Panama and the COP is about.
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Joanna Junak: Thank you, Clive. That's all for today. Tune in next time here on GFN TV or on our podcast. You can also find transcriptions of each episode on the GFN TV website. Thanks for watching or listening. See you next time.