Chief Medical Officer for England on vaping

Professor Sir Chris Whitty writes for The Times that marketing vapes to children is unacceptable - they should only have a role in helping smokers quit

The key points about vaping (e-cigarettes) can be easily summarised. If you smoke, vaping is much safer; if you don’t smoke, don’t vape; marketing vapes to children is utterly unacceptable.

Cigarettes are the biggest cause of entirely preventable illness and death in the UK. Smoking substantially increases the risk of heart disease, strokes, many cancers, dementia and lung disease among others. It harms those around the smoker, including children and unborn babies.

The cigarette industry model has always been to addict people to nicotine as early as legally possible, in the great majority of cases as teenagers. Once addicted, most smokers subsequently want to quit but this is very difficult. The deliberate industry-induced addiction has taken their choice away, despite claims by some industry lobbyists to be ‘pro choice’. To be pro nicotine addiction is to be anti-choice.

Helping smokers to quit is one of the best things we can do for their health. Using vapes (E-cigarettes) is a quitting tool many addicted smokers find effective, and given the multiple and immense health risks of smoking it is much safer to vape than to smoke. Swapping from smoking to vaping is therefore a positive health move.

Vaping is however not risk-free. We do not know the long-term effects of many vape ingredients and companies deliberately inducing nicotine addiction in others to maximise profits is not in the interests of the person being addicted. Non-smokers should therefore be encouraged not to start vaping, and in particular not to use vapes containing ingredients such as nicotine, the main aim of which is to addict them.

When it comes to children, we should be even more explicit. Companies trying to addict children for profit are behaving in a shameful way. Yet it is undoubtedly happening. In England, the proportion of 11-15 year olds using vapes increased from 6% to 9% from 2018 to 2021 and is still rising. Companies are marketing products targeted specifically at children using colours, flavours and cheap disposable options, whatever they may claim.

Unsafe, illegal vapes have also been pushed in our communities, with recent reports showing they can contain dangerous chemicals like lead and nickel. High levels of inhaled lead damages children’s central nervous system and brain development. Some products contain nicotine when claiming they do not, or contain harmful cannabis THC chemicals.

Announcements to reduce the marketing of vaping products to under 18s are a very welcome step in ending the harm that some parts of the vaping industry has created in children. The government has launched a Call for Evidence on further opportunities to prevent children vaping and I encourage people with evidence to submit it.

We should continue to encourage smokers to swap to vaping as the lesser risk, whilst preventing marketing and sale of vapes to children.

This article was originally published in The Times

Department of Health and Social Care