As the global vaping market continues to expand at a rapid clip, governments around the world are grappling with the question of how to classify and regulate e-cigarettes and related products. Some countries, like India, have taken the radical step of implementing an outright ban on the production, import, advertisement, sale and distribution of e-cigarettes.
Countries in the West have been more tolerant of vaping, attempting to strike a balance between safety and accessibility. There are, however, still significant differences among them, as can be seen when we compare the approach of the United States with that of the United Kingdom.
Vaping is on the rise in both countries. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 20 percent of American adults aged 18 to 29 “regularly or occasionally” use e-cigarettes. Furthermore, only 22 percent of Americans in that age group said they believe vaping is “very harmful to health,” compared to 48 percent of Americans over 65. Attitudes towards marijuana are similarly positive among younger Americans who are embracing products like cannabis-infused beer (in contrast with the negative views still held by many in the UK), while an overwhelming majority in every age group perceives cigarettes to be very harmful.
“Because young people have become much less likely to smoke in recent years,” Gallup concluded, “it’s possible that vaping is functioning as a substitute, which, if true, may have positive health implications.”
US crack-down on vaping industry
Nevertheless, there has been a push over the past year to more aggressively regulate vaping in the US. President Donald Trump’s administration has disclosed plans to prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarette cartridges. This is in response to a spate of illnesses in the US, attributed to vaping, that have mostly affected teens.
But vaping advocates argue that such legislation would harm adults who use e-cigarettes to help them quit traditional cigarettes, not to mention businesses that make and sell vaping products. They also maintain that illnesses can be avoided by cracking down on unsafe products sold on the black market. SMOKTech (https://www.myfreedomsmokes.com/replacement-coils-heads/shop-by-brand/smoktech.html), a leading manufacturer of vapor devices, announced in September a campaign “to come down hard on fake products and stand up for consumer rights,” citing the dangers of counterfeit goods.
The English perspective
The UK, on the other hand, has not experienced the same issues with vaping. Far fewer teens use e-cigarettes in the UK than in the US, despite a wide range of flavors being available. Public Health England (PHE), which has advocated vaping as an effective cessation tool, attributed the disparity to tighter advertising laws and a lower cap on nicotine.
In the UK, companies are not permitted to advertise vaping products on television, radio or the internet. That makes it difficult to market vaping to minors. As a result, the vaping culture in the UK is different from the recreational one seen in the US: most e-cigarette users in the UK are adults, and more than half are ex-smokers.
In 2018, PHE published a study in which it reported that, thanks to vaping, at least 20,000 people in the UK quit smoking cigarettes every year. PHE concluded that “vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking and switching completely from smoking to vaping conveys substantial health benefits.” And according to Professor John Newton, Director for Health Improvement at PHE, vaping is “at least 95 percent less harmful” than smoking combustible cigarettes.
Shifting American public opinion
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a very different opinion on the matter, expressing alarm over the prevalence of vaping among minors and even launching an E-cigarette Prevention Campaign geared towards teens. As the FDA sees it, “using e-cigarettes, just like cigarettes, puts [people] at risk for addiction and other health consequences.” The FDA’s requirements for manufacturers of e-cigarettes apply to anyone who modifies, mixes, fabricates, assembles, processes, labels, repackages, or imports vaping products. More regulations are expected to be imposed in the near future.
Unsurprisingly, Americans have become more critical of the vaping industry over the past year. According to a recent poll, 63 percent of Americans do not believe vaping is healthier than smoking, and only 29 percent think vaping helps people kick their smoking habit. This represents a significant shift from 2016, when, according to the same poll, more than half of Americans viewed vaping as a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes.
So as the UK touts the benefits of vaping and warns against conflating it with smoking, the US is pulling in the opposite direction. We can expect them to begin to converge as further research into vaping is conducted and we get a more complete picture of its effects.