A purple e-cigarette vape has been discarded and left lying on a metal water drain cover.

A purple e-cigarette vape has been discarded and left lying on a metal water drain cover.

Smoked out: why single-use vapes are being banned

Published 08/02/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

Vape use is on the up, and governments across the UK want to do something about it. Whilst it’s illegal to sell vapes to under 18s in the UK, the number of young people using vapes is rising, with evidence suggesting disposable vapes are partly to blame.

The Welsh Government has recently announced plans to ban disposable vapes, and support UK Government legislation to increase the smoking age and restrict sales of vapes. The follows the outcomes for a four-nation consultation on creating a smokefree generation and tackling youth vaping. The general public also appears to be in favour: 77% of people asked in Wales support a ban on disposable vapes to some degree.

This article discusses the impacts of disposable/single-use vapes on the environment, the waste stream, health and young people. It also briefly looks at the risks of a ban, how it’s being taken forward, and impacts from the UK Internal Market Act.

Single-use vapes not being disposed of correctly

Nearly five million disposable single-use vapes were thrown away per week (eight per second) in the UK in 2023, four times the amount for 2022. Single-use vapes generally consist of a plastic casing, and an array of different parts. This article by IEMA (the association of environment and sustainability professionals) explains:

These will be a mouthpiece, cotton or synthetic fibre which holds around 2ml of e-liquid, often including nicotine, a heating coil, a lithium battery, a sensor to detect airflow to initiate the heating coil, and an LED light to show that the battery is discharging to heat the coil.

When disposed of, single-use vapes become Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and require specific treatment in the waste stream. When disposed of incorrectly the lithium batteries inside vapes pose a safety risk.

In 2023 the insurer Zurich Municipal reported a 62% rise in bin lorry blazes and a 108% increase in house fires sparked by vapes in the preceding two years. Its research also showed that:

  • three single-use vapes are disposed of incorrectly in the UK each second;
  • three out of four users are unaware of how to dispose of the vapes correctly; and
  • a similar proportion is unaware vapes contain lithium batteries.

Keep Wales Tidy told the Senedd’s Climate Change Committee in September 2022 that it had seen an increase in disposable vapes in street litter, and more recently reported that vapes were found on 6% of streets in some areas. Littering of these items release, plastic, electronic and hazardous chemical waste into the environment.

Material Focus, an independent NGO working on the use and recyclability of electricals, says single-use vape producers, importers, distributors and retailers need to do more to meet their legal responsibilities.

Children and young people increasingly use single-use vapes

While vaping is considered less harmful than smoking, it isn’t risk free and the long-term effects aren’t known. Research shows that children are attracted to the fruit and sweet flavours of vapes, as well as the brightly coloured packaging and product design.

Public Health Wales (PHW) highlights the health risks of vaping, especially for children and young people, and reports that nicotine dependency impacts mental health and well-being. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) says there’s growing evidence that young non-smokers who use vapes are more likely than non-users to take up smoking.

PHW reports that 5% of secondary school pupils in Wales are vaping at least once a week, and (a snapshot survey from a small sample showed) around 9% of year 10 pupils are using vapes every day. It’s published guidance to address vaping among secondary school-age learners.

A 2023 survey by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) showed vapes chosen by children are mostly disposable, and it’s the most frequent choice for almost 70% of young vapers. In addition, the surveys show the proportion of children who tried vaping once or twice increased by 50% in 2023.

Our 2022 article details the concerns around vapes access by children and young people, and the rise in their use.

Are there any risks from a ban?

Whilst recognising the need to address children vaping, the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) has previously rejected stricter regulations, claiming it would have a negative effect on people trying to quit smoking and foster the growth of an unregulated black market, an argument rejected by the Local Government Association in England due to lack of evidence.

ASH Wales also highlights that “vaping is popular among smokers who want to give up and is the most commonly used smoking cessation tool in the UK”. However it welcomes the recently announced measures to address vaping and smoking , saying they are “a vital stepping stone on the path to ending the smoking epidemic once and for all”.

What are other countries doing?

At present, over 30 countries have banned “the sale of e-cigarettes [vapes] as consumer products”. Among those countries that do permit their sale, a number have flavour restrictions in place.

In addition, a number of countries are considering or implementing bans on single-use vapes. France has recently voted to ban single-use vapes, which could be in force by September 2024. Ireland has consulted on the topic.

The EU has set regulatory standards for vapes, including nicotine levels and labelling. A number of EU countries have prohibited certain flavours being used, including Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Lithuania.

Australia has banned vapes except on prescription, but has struggled with an influx of illegal disposable vapes. It has been illegal to import disposables into Australia since 1 Jan 2024.

Some countries – including Cambodia, Jordan, Nepal, Panama, Thailand and Turkmenistan – have gone further and banned the use of e-cigarettes entirely.

What’s next?

The Welsh Government, along with the UK and Scottish governments will introduce legislation to implement a ban on disposable vapes, including both nicotine and non-nicotine containing products. This will be brought forward as soon as possible, and “as far as possible” actions will be adopted in a consistent manner across the UK, to ensure regulatory alignment. Northern Ireland will also consider introducing this in future.

Alongside this, the UK Government will introduce a Tobacco and Vapes Bill, supported by the Welsh Government, “at the earliest opportunity”. This will include changing the age of sale for all tobacco products, and introducing regulation making and enforcement powers.

A UK wide collaborative approach being taken

Taking a four-nation approach could alleviate potential impacts from the UK Internal Market Act 2020. This Act establishes market access principles, including mutual recognition, which facilitates the free movement of goods and services within the UK. If, for example, Wales enacts a ban on single-use vapes, but England does not, the market access principles would mean that this ban would not apply to vapes entering Wales from England.

Collaboration between governments is unusual for devolved policy matters. So in areas, such as young-people’s health, that require a quick response, is the UK Internal Market Act encouraging more cooperative action between governments to effectively respond to a policy challenge, and avoid potential impacts of the market access principles?

Article by Lorna Scurlock & Amandine Debus, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Amandine Debus by the Natural Environment Research Council, which enabled this article to be completed.