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Pressure mounts on vape brands as Labour calls for ban on advertising e-cigs to children

The Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years, Helen Hayes, has proposed a new bill to help protect young people from vaping-related marketing.

Introducing the bill in Parliament yesterday (5 September), she said the marketing of vapes, which feature bright coloured packaging, cartoon characters and products named after sweets such as Skittles, is harmful to children. Like other prohibited products, the legal age to buy a vape is currently 18, however, the products are rising in popularity among young people, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

“The number of children becoming addicted to nicotine via vaping is growing fast and urgent action is needed,” she said.

While it’s not clear exactly what the restrictions could entail at this stage, Hayes said in a tweet the branding, advertising and promotion of electronic cigarettes that appeal to children would be banned under the proposed bill.

Yesterday (5 September) the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its annual figures for smoking and vaping. It found 4.5m people in the UK use an e-cigarette daily or occasionally. This equates to 8.7% of the population, up from 7.7% in 2021. The products are most popular among 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK (15.5%), up from 11.1% in 2021.

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If the proposed bill passes into law, it will make the advertising restrictions statutory, in line the restrictions on advertising to children introduced for cigarettes in the 90s, rather than self-regulatory, as is the current case under the Advertising Standards Authority.

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The ASA currently prohibits e-cigarette brands from any marketing activity or material that is association with youth culture, characters who appeal to under 18s, or anyone behind in an “adolescent or juvenile manner”, as well as being limited to not featuring anyone who appears under 25.

In May, prime minister Rishi Sunak told ITV’s This Morning that the government is “looking at” how it can “strengthen the rules” for how vapes are marketed and promoted. “It looks like they are targeted at kids, [which is] ridiculous,” he said.

The proposed bill comes in the same week Scotland announced a consultation to consider banning disposable vapes from sale, on the grounds of their environmental impact and supposed popularity with young people.

John Dunne, the director general of the UK’s Vaping Industry Association, told Marketing Week more work needs to be done to ensure current rules on  advertising restrictions are enforced.

“We already have very robust restrictions on advertising, the problem is that they’re not being enforced,” he argues. “Effectively, there’s an awful lot of grey area out there,” he adds, citing that, in his experience, even when brands contact the ASA, they don’t always get a clear answer.

“The replies you get back tend to be quite cryptic,” he adds.

But Dunne doesn’t believe these products are being marketed at children specifically. “You can walk down the aisle of any supermarket and see colours being used to denote different flavours on the shelf,” he says.

However, he is calling for actual punishment for the vaping brands that break the rules. As it stands, the ASA has what it calls “strict rules” concerning the advertising and marketing of vapes, but as Dunne notes, this does not translate into any hefty fines. “We want to see the fines massively increase,” he says, whether that’s the brands themselves or the shops selling the products to underage children.

The ban should extend to everyone as it is virtually impossible to prevent children from being exposed to advertising targeted at adults.

Dr Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes, The George Institute

Dr Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes, Honorary Research Fellow at The George Institute for Global Health, UK, which shared its own research earlier this summer highlighting the negative impact of smoking and vaping on children, tells Marketing Week: “It is very important to ban advertising of vapes to children to protect them from the harmful impact of vaping and luring them into more harmful forms of smoking, such as tobacco. Although the long-term consequences of vaping remain poorly understood, we know that they are not risk free.”

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Gomes welcomes the proposed bill, and says it should be accompanied by “other forms of regulation and enforcement of prohibition of sales to children and young people”.

“Banning advertising is critical to reduce their appeal to children and adolescents. Having said that, the ban should extend to everyone as it is virtually impossible to prevent children from being exposed to advertising targeted at adults. Vaping should be offered with medical prescription or by smoking cessation services as a medical aid rather than a recreational tool,” she concludes.

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