In an announcement by PM Rishi Sunak on Thursday 5th October, the UK government is planning to combat nicotine addiction with a law stating that “children aged 14 or under this year can never legally be sold cigarettes in their lifetime”. The government aims to implement this by increasing “the age of sale…by one year each year” from 2027. This means that in 2027, the legal age for buying cigarettes will become 19, in 2028 it will become 20, and so on. If the ban is successful, it might also prove to be a win for the environment in the long run – discarded cigarette butts are claimed to be the most littered single-use plastic product in the world.
Two major criticisms of the policy proposal are the possibility of it perpetuating the illegal trade of cigarettes and other tobacco-based items on the black market and that it takes away people’s freedom to choose whether or not to smoke.
Sunak also mentioned plans for discouraging vape use among younger generations – particularly schoolchildren. Vapes are heavily targeted towards young people, with their bright colours and various flavours. Proposed regulatory procedures for this include restrictions on where vape products can be displayed in stores and restrictions on targeted marketing.
On the same basis as Sunak’s newly announced smoking policy, the potential for a ban on single-use vapes was floated around by multiple major news outlets last month. Ultimately the policy didn’t come to fruition. One challenge in banning single-use vapes is their usefulness for smokers who are trying to transition away from cigarettes. Many students probably also wouldn’t have been happy about the ban, but it would have proven beneficial to the health (and wallets) of those who only purchase the disposable version of the product.
Banning disposable vapes would have similar environmental benefits to banning cigarettes. Vapes contain a variety of materials (plastics and metals) that cannot be recycled together and that have extremely slow degradation rates. Some of the electronic materials could last longer than a vape pen is used for and might be better utilised in products with longer lifetimes. Additionally, vapes leach a myriad of waste products on disposal; microplastics from the casing, heavy metal lithium from the battery, and carcinogens, not only toxic to humans but to lots of other wildlife, not to mention the nicotine itself. On several occasions I’ve seen vapes left in the grass in Hyde Park and on pavements – both toxic and a visual blight.
This summer, many music festivals implemented single-use vape bans in efforts to protect the lands being used and adjacent environments. This sounds great in theory, and some vapes were confiscated upon entry to these festivals, but – at least at Glastonbury Music Festival – bag checks weren’t nearly thorough enough to be effective. It should also be noted that at Glastonbury, single-use vape pens could still be purchased at on-site stalls along with biodegradable wet wipes (wet wipes were also on their list of banned items, for environmental reasons). These products join the collection of discarded items that get left on the grounds by festivalgoers for clean-up crews to deal with. The fields that hosted these events probably remain littered with single-use vapes – that is, if they haven’t been washed or carried into neighbouring ecosystems. A country-wide ban might be the only way to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen at future events.
The cigarette policy is a slow-moving one; it won’t take effect for another four years and is already facing public resistance and criticism. However, it appears to be a solid step in the right direction. I only find it unfortunate that this assertion doesn’t seem to extend to policies solely focused on environmental protection; perhaps a more poignant human health risk is necessary to warrant decisive action from ministers? Regardless, progress is progress, and the planet will appreciate all the wins it can get, however major or minor.