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#studentviews: How could policy reduce the harm caused by disposable vapes?

Despite the damage to public health and the environment from disposable vapes, an outright ban may not be viable. But policy-makers could regulate consumption, particularly among younger people, as well as promoting battery recycling and greater use of reusable e-cigarette options.

The popularity of vaping has surged dramatically in recent years. These colourful, pocket-sized devices have emerged as an alternative to smoking. With creative and wide-reaching marketing, they have seen rising popularity, particularly among young people. According to the NHS, 18% of 15-year-olds in England and Wales were using e-cigarettes in February 2022.

While disposable vapes offer a unique substitute for smoking – and are argued to be a somewhat safer alternative – the dangers are being overlooked. Currently, the environmental and future healthcare issues associated with disposable vapes are not being addressed.

The alarming increase in the number of 11 to 17-year-olds vaping in the UK – doubling to 7% in 2022 – has raised grave concerns. Disturbingly, 69% of these young vapers rely on disposable vapes to satisfy their nicotine cravings.

Medical experts such as Sarah Brown, a consultant in paediatric respiratory medicine, have sounded the alarm about a generation of children facing nicotine-induced mood problems and attention disorders. Along with nicotine addiction and respiratory illnesses, the long-term effects of e-cigarette consumption have barely been investigated.

These dangers and costs could be avoided if disposable vapes were to come under closer scrutiny by the government. Tighter regulations need to be put in place to prevent UK youth from getting their hands on disposable vapes so easily. This could avert substantial financial repercussions stemming from future hospitalisations and the need to reallocate resources to address these issues in the future.

The environmental costs associated with disposable vapes are also significant. One of the key concerns is the challenge of recycling the materials used in these devices – lithium in particular. This valuable resource, now widely known for its use in batteries and electronics, is present in each disposable vape, amounting to around 0.15 grams of lithium per device.

With sales of disposable single-use vapes skyrocketing to approximately 138 million units annually, the cumulative impact of the improper disposal of these vapes is large. To put things into perspective, the amount of lithium contained in this number of disposable vapes is equivalent to over 2,500 electric car batteries. This waste of valuable resources could be used for the green energy transition.

In an era where sustainability is paramount, these resources should not go to waste. At the bare minimum, emphasis needs to be placed on the correct recycling of disposable vapes.

Currently, one of the UK’s largest electronic recycling plants processes just 700 vapes a week. Proper recycling can offer a second life to lithium, potentially alleviating the need for as much mining and extraction (which comes with its own set of environmental challenges). While an outright ban on single use vapes may not be a viable solution, as it might give rise to unregulated black markets, decisive action is imperative.

There is some evidence that disposable vapes can be effective in helping cigarette smokers to kick their habit. But the alarming surge in vaping among young people who may not necessarily be smokers can also be attributed to the availability of disposable vapes.

A potential solution could be to phase out disposables gradually, while promoting rechargeable substitutes. People who use e-cigarettes as a tool to stop smoking are likely to be receptive to the transition to rechargeable vapes. This shift away from the ‘simplicity’ and ‘easiness’ of disposable vapes could also reduce the incentives for youngsters to start vaping in the first place.

If disposable vapes were rechargeable, they could be reused up to 300 times. This would dramatically reduce the volume of vapes that find their way into landfills.

Instead of an outright ban, a more pragmatic yet effective approach would be to implement stringent controls and limits to curb easy access for young people, while simultaneously promoting rechargeable, eco-friendly alternatives.

While the UK has historically maintained a hands-off approach to vaping regulations, it is now vital to address the disposable vaping outbreak. In stark contrast, the European Union is set to ban flavoured heated tobacco products, and the Dutch government is moving forward with restrictions on flavoured vaping devices.

The UK's complacency about vaping regulation needs to evolve, considering the future costs and consequences that are currently overlooked. While the vaping industry is a growing sector with economic contributions, the importance of prioritising public health and environmental sustainability cannot be overstated. Protecting the country’s youth from the lure of disposable vapes, and taking responsibility for the environment, must take precedence over short-term economic gains.

Author: George Drewitt-Jones
Editor’s note: This article is from the University of Bristol’s communicating economics class of 2023-24.
Picture by Benjamin Robinson on iStock
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