Rishi Sunak's anti-vaping campaign: a Don Quixote approach against windmills

7 March 2024, 10:46

Sunak's anti-vaping campaign: a Don Quixote approach against windmills
Sunak's anti-vaping campaign: a Don Quixote approach against windmills. Picture: Alamy/LBC
  • Mohammad Agrabawi is senior director of corporate affairs at ANDS, a manufacturer and distributor of alternative nicotine delivery products.
Mohammad Agrabawi

By Mohammad Agrabawi

The UK Government's latest initiatives to curb youth vaping has ignited a debate reminiscent of similar past policy failures in the Middle East.

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The Prime Minister's multifaceted strategy includes:

  • banning disposable vapes;
  • restrictions on flavoured vaping products;
  • stricter penalties for non-compliant retailers;
  • and, as announced by the Chancellor, a new tax on vapes.

Whilst these proposals await legislative approval, they have already encountered substantial opposition from various quarters, including health advocates, MPs, and industry groups, all of whom fear these measures could inadvertently exacerbate existing issues rather than resolve them.

Some of the concerns raised echo the experiences of countries in the Middle East, where similar regulatory approaches have failed to yield the Prime Minister’s desired outcomes.

One major worry is the potential for these regulations to fuel illicit trade, as witnessed in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Restrictions on vaping products in these countries has led to a proliferation of black-market alternatives, undermining public health efforts and regulatory control.

There are also concerns that heavy taxation, as well as flavour bans, will deter smokers from transitioning to safer alternatives, or worse, push those who have successfully stopped smoking back onto traditional cigarettes.

Coming from the Middle East, I was hoping for the opposite, where the Middle Eastern governments would mimic the experience of the UK to date: treating these harm-reduction products differently, and successfully lowering their smoking rates.

Sadly, this hasn’t happened. In Jordan, for instance, where the excise tax on vapes is a staggering 200 per cent, smoking rates remain alarmingly high, one of the highest globally at 65 per cent.

As a result of its high taxes, the illicit trade has surged in recent years, accounting for 90 per cent of the market.

But this isn’t unique to Jordan. In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where vapes are taxed similarly to cigarettes, the sizes of the illegal markets are practically the same, at between 85-90 per cent.

These stark figures underscore the importance of adopting effective and evidence-based strategies in tackling smoking and youth nicotine use, while also highlighting the potential consequences of punitive taxation and restrictive measures.

While the UK's commitment to reducing youth vaping is commendable, the emphasis should be on avoiding the pitfalls encountered elsewhere. By steering clear of failed approaches and embracing innovative solutions, the UK can continue to pave the way towards a smoke-free future that safeguards the well-being of all its citizens.

Achieving this goal requires a careful balance between regulation and accessibility, with a steadfast focus on promoting public health above all else.

However, increasing the tax burden on vapes, and driving up the cost of these proven safer options in a cost-of-living crisis, sends entirely the wrong message.

The Prime Minister should heed the warnings from scientists, public health experts, responsible vaping companies, and his own MPs by changing course.

If he copies the mistakes of Middle Eastern countries, not only will he throw away the UK’s world-leading position on tobacco harm reduction, but his legacy will be a disastrous one for public health and for the millions of current and former smokers that people like me are trying to help.

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