Margot Leys (she/her)
On my 12 and a half minute walk to work a few days ago, I passed 10 discarded vapes. This was more than the number of empty crisp packets (4) and plastic bags (3); I could have sworn it was more than the number of cigarette butts too. Whilst a small sample size, this mirrors the country’s impossibly huge issue with single-use vapes, and the disastrous impact they are having on the environment and the health of our nation. But would banning them be the solution?
The vape, originally lauded as a safer option than smoking, has been a popular alternative to cigarettes since its conception in 2003 by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik. It is now understood that vaping comes with its own raft of side effects; posing harm to major organs, severe lung disease, and a chronic nicotine addiction recognised in many.
In recent years, however, the vape has become increasingly targeted at children and young adults in its own right. Popular models like the Lost Mary are plastic pods in bright pastel colours with flavours donning names that emanate confectionery such as ‘cotton candy’ and ‘blue razz’. Between 2018 and 2022, the proportion of 15 year olds vaping in Scotland increased from 3% to 10%. It should be of major concern that children have become the target demographic for a product that is so highly addictive and particularly damaging for the developing brain and body.
Moreover, newer vape models are designed to be single use. Reportedly 5 million vapes are discarded every week, 4 times the amount from 2022. Whilst restrictions on the usage and advertising of cigarettes has made a positive impact on the number of smokers in the country (81% in 1949 to 12.9% in 2022), the amount of plastic waste and environmental damage the toxins in the vapes causes suggest that a ban is needed to defeat the giant of the disposable vape. Even if a minority are vaping, their production, disposal, and wastage still leaves a totally unsustainable level of environmental damage in its wake.
This has led to urges for the government to restrict access. In September it was revealed that government ministers were looking into banning single use vapes in the UK. This raises questions as to what’s next for the vaping industry and for the health of the nation.
Concerns surrounding the future of vaping are perhaps better directed towards its marketing. How did we not see the vaping epidemic coming? And how did we not draw parallels between the popularisation of vaping, and the popularisation of smoking? In a world structured around maximising profits, advertising reigns supreme. It is not to say that we are minions who believe anything but rather that we are seen as data to huge conglomerates. In turn, we are desensitised to the numbers, having become so used to being one. Hearing stats about the dangers of smoking, and vaping, has not prevented their rise in popularity. In fact, as our awareness of the dangers it poses increases, so too has the number of children vaping.
The problem is not just the product but the idea we have about the product. Cigarettes were thought of as healthy, and when that facade broke down, they became sophisticated, cool, sexy. They were dangerous and thus desirable. It is no accident that we associate smoking with a rebel without a cause. An addictive product is given an attractive narrative, and we become wilfully ignorant to the consequences this caused.
Disposable vapes are designed and distributed as essentially a children’s product. It is so sinister how overtly this is the case and yet still they remain accessible. There is a cohort of children (and adults) addicted to these disposable vapes, and to nicotine in general. Do we perhaps go full circle and smoking becomes an alternative to vaping? Whilst a ban seems like the only immediate solution, what will come of it is worryingly uncertain.
We cannot predict the future, but we can study the past and hope not to make similar mistakes. The subtle ways that vaping came to rival smoking show that it’s easy to get swept up by a convincing narrative. It was appealing to believe that there could be a ‘good’ alternative to cigarettes. We cannot pretend any longer that this is the goal of vape manufacturers. The goal is to sell. What this should teach us is to question the stories we’re sold that seem too good to be true. Alongside a ban, more action needs to be taken to ensure that lobbyists and advertisers have less influence in public policy. Coupled together, there can be hope that we can prevent any further damage being done.