It is hard to deny that there is an element the disposable vape industry that is targeting their marketing towards underage teens. The presence of disposable vapes in sweet shops with brightly coloured packaging, some of which even mimic known sweet brands, indicate there is at least a contingent of disposable vape manufacturers that are trying to catch the interest of people too young to vape.

Disposable vapes have made the news yet again!

Having come under fire after testing revealed many disposable vapes are overfilled, containing illegal levels of e-liquid, disposable vapes have made the headlines once more.

Designed to be used as a smoking cessation device, E-Cigarettes and disposable vape devices are meant to be a harm reduction tool that eliminates most of the harm from smoking. As this is the ‘new form of smoking’, it is understandable that the adventurous youths may have their curiosity piqued by vaping, just like they have with smoking in the years previous.

The legal age restrictions make it a ‘taboo’ of sorts for youngsters, an indication of ‘maturity’ (or so they think!) to impress others and/or to feel like an adult. However, having seen the marketing of vapes toward the youth in America by JUUL, it has become clear that some in the vaping industry are eliminating the ‘mature’ perception of vaping in favour of appealing to younger customers.

Sadly, this is present in the UK as well!

E-Cigarettes and vapes function by heating a liquid known as ‘e-liquid’ or ‘vape juice’ into an aerosol or ‘vapour’, which is inhaled by the user. E-liquid contains nicotine which is absorbed into the blood via the lungs, helping vapers satisfy the urge to smoke by delivering nicotine to the body in an action that is almost identical to smoking!

The delivery of nicotine in a way that resembles smoking may be the reason for the success of the E-Cigarette as a smoking cessation tool; studies indicate they could be up to twice as effective as other forms of nicotine replacement therapy!

The important thing to remember about E-Cigarettes produced in the UK is that they are held to a high standard of regulations by the TPD and TRPR directives, which may explain why Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians agree that E-Cigarettes are at least 95% less harmful than tobacco cigarettes!

The TPD and TRPR regulations enforce a high standard on E-Cigarettes and vapes produced in the UK, banning flavourings known to be harmful when inhaled, like diacetyl which is known to be associated with the condition ‘popcorn lung’ when inhaled at high volumes – this hasn’t been seen from E-Cigarette use despite the headlines – and chemicals that break down into diacetyl, like acetoin and pentanedione.

Other regulations that are in place include a restriction on the size of the e-liquid tank, whether it is a replaceable tank on a big vape mod device or the tank inside a disposable vape. This is where disposables have been in trouble recently, with the Daily Mail investigation revealing the Elf Bar 600 range in several stores in the UK were overfilled on average by over 50%, breaking the legal limit of 2ml.

A second investigation conducted by British American Tobacco (BAT) said they found this to be the case for most disposable vape brands in the UK after conducting their own tests, the results of which they did not share publicly, but did send to trading standards.

Just like smoking, there are age restrictions on vaping primarily due to the addictive substance, nicotine. The long terms effects of vaping still need to be studied and these unknowns are reason enough to restrict the use of E-Cigarettes by those with bodies and brains that are still developing.

The Daily Mail conducted an investigation spanning weeks, exploring sweet shops on Oxford Street, a retail centre of London, UK. Two of the stores selling sweets and candy, House of Candy (also called Candy World) and Prime Candy also stocked disposable vapes. This alone is a warning sign as you need to be over 18 to buy a vape of any kind. Why would a specialised retailer waste shelf space on something that is not targeted at their main customer base?

In store, some of the disposable vape displays fit in too well with the colourful packaging and displays of sweets. Particularly damning is the existence of disposable vape devices that mimic the packaging and/or names of well-known children’s sweets and drinks.

It is not unreasonable to deliver products with desirable flavours, even adults can have a sweet tooth, however using words to describe the flavour on plain packaging seems like the right answer here. Instead, colourful packaging and images on it are being used which is indicative of trying to appeal to younger people.

These ‘rip-off’ disposable vapes available in some of these stores include ‘Jolly Ranger’ a copy of Jolly Rancher sweets, ‘Rubison Bar’ a copy of Rubicon drink, ‘Skitle’ a copy of Skittles sweets, and ‘Caliypso’ which copies the beloved ice lolly, Calypso. While the brand names are close, the packaging and images on them try to mimic that of their candy counterpart – and this is the ‘smoking gun’.

Tobacco products have strict rules to follow for the packaging that is allowed in the UK; being plain, informative and a little scary with the images of smoking related disease that are now included on the packaging. This makes plain the risks associated with tobacco use for the purchaser. Vapes do not have the same restrictions.

Another uncomfortable fact is that some of these disposable vape companies use cartoon characters from both adult and children’s cartoons. This includes Bart Simpson from The Simpsons, minions from the Despicable Me/Minions franchise, both of which cartoons are aimed at youngsters. I’m sure the companies in question would argue that they are aiming for a feeling of nostalgia, however this is tenuous at best and isn’t replicated in marketing practices for other products.  

One way to measure whether these marketing tactics are being effective is to look at the current situation in schools across the UK.

A new device known as the VapeGuardian has been developed and is now being used in 77 schools across Ireland and the UK. The device features sensors to detect E-Cigarette vapour and immediately sends an alert to a designated teacher when it is activated. The data produced from these devices suggests they are being set off by a vaping student between 17 and 22 times a day.

It is positive that schools that have installed the device have seen the instances of vaping half after a single week, continuing to reduce as the weeks pass. This could mean the VapeGuardian is having the desired effect of preventing students from vaping or it may mean that students are ‘wising up’ to the device locations and are taking steps to avoid vaping near them.

Other sources of information indicate a worrying trend, with a report from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) finding the number of 11 to 17 year olds currently vaping jumped from 4% in 2020 to 7% in 2022. Another statistic from the report was that about 3% of children aged 11 to 15 had tried vaping and this rose to 10% by 2022.

Neil O’Brien, the Minister for Public Health, has reportedly begun to ask for evidence to justify a clampdown on disposable vapes. This has suggested that a ban on certain flavoured disposable vapes could result from the review.

The review itself intends to look at the appearance and characteristics of vaping products currently on sale, examining the marketing and branding in addition to the flavours available.

One way that kids may be getting around the age restrictions is purchasing online. Disposable Vapes are available on Amazon and can even be purchased through Deliveroo’s delivery services! This presents a problem as it can be as easy as checking a ‘tick box’ when buying online to confirm you are over 18. Some delivery services may ask for ID on delivery but there are likely to be exceptions and ways of circumventing this step.

This does mean that the purchaser is committing fraud to get their disposable vapes and this problem is likely to be harder to tackle without impacting businesses significantly. Making online purchasing of E-Cigarettes require online verification or having an account or membership may help to combat teens acquiring disposable vapes by means of fraud.

It may not be happening everywhere, but marketing of disposable vapes is occurring even in the UK. While it is encouraging that studies show that vaping does not act as a gateway to smoking, nicotine may be harmful to the developing youngster as a large number of changes occur in the brain during adolescence. Studies indicate that using nicotine as an adolescent may increase the addictive behaviour and could alter some emotional and cognitive functions.

For these reasons it is important to protect the youth from vaping. In order to do this, better enforcement of the law needs to occur, and the marketing practices mentioned in this article addressed.

E-Cigarettes were designed as a harm-reduction tool for smokers and are proving to be a successful way to quit cigarettes.