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October 19, 2023
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How Will a "Smokefree Generation" Law Affect UK Vapers?

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Jim McDonald

Oct. 4, 2023

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak today proposed a so-called “smokefree generation” law for England that would slowly ban the sales of cigarettes by increasing the legal age to purchase by one year each year. Sunak also announced possible changes to laws regarding vaping products, including e-liquid flavors, nicotine-free e-liquids, and disposable vapes.

The smokefree generation proposal, as it stands today, would apply only to products containing tobacco (and cigarette papers). It does not include vaping products or nicotine pouches, although that could change later. The government says 71 percent of British adults support a smokefree generation law.

"For a Conservative, measures that restrict choice are never easy,” Sunak said today at the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester. “What has ultimately swayed me is that none of us, not even those who smoke, want our children to grow up to be smokers and this change can make that a reality. It will save more lives than any other decision we could take."

The government will launch a consultation later this month on the smokefree generation plan and specific proposals for reducing youth vaping, according to a health department policy paper published today. Legislation will be put forth as quickly as possible after the consultation. The rival Labour Party has promised to “lend” Sunak the votes he’ll need for passage.

Because health laws are created separately by the countries of the UK, changes resulting from today’s proposals would only affect England—not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. But the government says it will “develop these proposals with a view to aligning policy approaches.”

The “smokefree generation” idea is not new

The smokefree generation plan proposed today by Sunak would prevent anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 2009, from ever legally buying cigarettes or other tobacco products in England, where the current legal age is 18. The proposal could change before it becomes legislation, and is likely to be challenged in court if it passes.

The law is modeled after one passed in New Zealand last December—the first smokefree generation legislation passed by any country. However, the concept is much older than New Zealand’s law.

The idea was first proposed in Singapore in 2012, where it was named Tobacco-Free Generation. And while Singapore has still not yet passed a smokefree generation law, a tobacco control advocacy organization called Tobacco Free Generation International is headquartered there.

Did Sunak think it through. It goes against civil liberties when kids come of age at 18 & how are they going to impose this on visitors to the UK who smoke? It can’t possibly be policed. Just unworkable. #Smoking is self destructive but you can’t force legislation like this.

— Anne Dettmer (@artisannes) October 4, 2023

Since the proposal in Singapore, two cities have passed variations on the “tobacco-free generation” law: Balanga City, Philippines, and Brookline, Massachusetts. The Brookline law, which has been in effect for over two years, also bans the sale of smoke- and tobacco-free vaping products to anyone born after 1999.

Today in Brookline, it is legal for a 23-year-old born on Dec. 31, 1999, to buy a vaping product—but illegal for a 23-year-old born a day later, on Jan. 1, 2000. Nationwide, the legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products is 21.

The difference between a law banning nicotine sales in a small city bordered on three sides by Boston and a law banning tobacco sales in England—a country of 55 million people—is that Brookline residents can just pop out of the city to stock up on cigarettes.

England is a large island country with an existing black market in cigarettes. Smokefree generation skeptics say the UK law will supercharge illegal markets, which are already a problem because of the country’s high tobacco taxes. Further, the law by definition discriminates based on age, making it a prime target for legal challenges.


Will the UK ban vape flavors or disposables?

The Conservative Party UK government is also proposing so-far undefined restrictions on vaping products, specifically noting the government is “considering new legislation to regulate the flavours of vapes and their descriptions” to reduce adolescent vape use. (Note that the government policy document consistently uses the term “children” to describe teenagers—probably a red flag.)

The government seems determined to take some action on flavors, although they aren’t giving it away in their policy document, which acknowledges that flavored vapes are also preferred by adults and improve smoking cessation outcomes.

“To avoid unintended consequences on youth and adult smoking rates,” says the government, “the scope of restrictions will need to be carefully considered. The options for how the government will seek to do this will be detailed in a consultation later this month.”

“And by the way, I’m banning cigarettes and Elf Bars.”

— Christopher Snowdon 🇺🇦 (@cjsnowdon) October 4, 2023

British newspapers reported in September that a proposal to ban disposable vapes was imminent. However, the government still hasn’t rolled out a specific proposal. The policy paper published today explains the reasons for potentially prohibiting disposables, but never takes the leap to advocating for a ban. Much of the government’s concern is couched in environmental harms caused by improper disposal of single-use vapes, but the driving force for any ban will surely be the growing moral panic over teenage vaping.

The government will propose that nicotine-free vaping products only be sold to those 18 and older, and also says it will “explore” in its coming consultation “whether we should also impose further restrictions on non-nicotine vapes.” Nicotine-free e-liquids are important in the UK, where many vape shop customers buy zero-nicotine shortfills to avoid bottle-size regulations left over from EU-mandated product rules.

This is the full list of vaping policy changes under consideration:

  • Restricting vape flavors
  • Regulating packaging and product presentation
  • Regulating point of sale displays
  • Restricting the sale of disposable vapes
  • Introducing an age restriction for non-nicotine vapes
  • Exploring further restrictions for other nicotine consumer products such as nicotine
  • pouches

  • Preventing industry giving out free samples of vapes to children
  • These areas of concern were included in an earlier public consultation, announced in April along with the health department’s smoking cessation plan that included distributing a million free vapes.

    The idea of flavor or disposable bans must be maddening to UK vaping advocates, whose hard work has led to the least intrusive and most liberal vaping product regulation in the world. That could all change soon, depending on how the government balances its priorities. And, even if the Sunak government doesn’t ban flavors or disposables, that Pandora’s box has been opened. The next UK government—likely led by the left-of-center Labour Party—may well have fewer worries over banning products nicotine consumers prefer.



    Oct. 19 update Comment until Dec. 6 on the UK vaping consultation

    The UK consultation on changes to vaping product laws is now open. The government is asking for public comment on a variety of issues until Dec. 6.

    The consultation title is “Creating a smokefree generation and tackling youth vaping.” Among the proposed changes are:

    • Flavor restrictions or even bans of some flavors
    • Banning disposable vapes—and possibly other products
    • Forcing vapes to be hidden from view in stores
    • Restricting images on product packaging
    • Regulating nicotine-free vaping products the same as nicotine-containing ones
    • Regulating nicotine pouches like vapes
    • Taxes on vaping products
    • Including heated tobacco products in the proposed “smokefree generation” law

    Before writing your comments, we highly recommend reading the New Nicotine Alliance's introduction to the consultation, which includes a link to NNA trustee Michelle Jones' guide that breaks down the consultation and explains the issues at stake for low-risk nicotine product users.

    Whether you write a long essay or a few lines, it is important that a large number of vapers and other nicotine users weigh in and support maintaining access to a wide variety of high-quality products.

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    Jim McDonald

    Vaping since: 12 years

    Favorite products:

    Favorite flavors: RY4-style tobaccos, fruits

    Expertise in: Political and legal challenges, tobacco control haters, moral panics

    Jim McDonald

    Smokers created vaping without help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and I believe vapers have the right to continue innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I’m a member of the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy

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