Vaping is big business in Britain
Even after Britain’s ban on indoor smoking came into force in 2007, the smell of cigarette smoke was never far away. He was crossing pub grounds and living outside workplaces. Today you are almost as likely to smell the blue razz lemonade or the “refreshing, mellow waves” of watermelon.
Almost one in ten Britons now use electronic cigarettes regularly or occasionally. According to current trends (see chart) vaping is expected to become more common than smoking by the mid-2020s. But many in the industry fear a government consultation, which ends in December, will be followed by a regulatory ban.
Catering to Britain’s 4.7m vapers is getting bigger and bigger. A report for the industry, by the Center for Business and Economic Research, a think tank, put the industry’s trade value at £2.8bn ($3.4bn) in 2021 and calculated that it supported almost 18,000 jobs. The number of vapers has increased by almost a third since then.
The country now has nearly 3,500 specialty vape shops, according to the Local Data Company, a research firm. The greatest series, VPZ, was founded in Leith, Edinburgh, in 2012 and now has over 150 stores across Britain. The company began manufacturing its own beers in Scotland in 2016. It reported a turnover of £36m in 2022, up almost 60% over five years.
The rapid growth of the industry partly reflects a supportive stance from public health authorities. Although many governments have been wary of the potential health benefits of inhaling nicotine by inhaling smoke rather than tobacco smoke, the National Health Service has make a constant case for change. In April the government announced a ‘swap to stop’ scheme which will give up to 1m smokers free vape starter kits, the first scheme of its kind globally.
In recent years the industry has also been one of the few to directly benefit from Britain’s cost of living pressures. An average pack of 20 cigarettes now costs £14.57, compared to around £5 for around the same number of puffs from a disposable vape and half that for the same amount of nicotine in a refill. More and more cost-conscious smokers are making the switch.
But clouds are growing. Just six months after announcing the introduction of vaping kits, the government has released a consultation on vaping regulation that appears to be announcing a much tougher line. The change in attitude has been driven by two related issues – an increase in the use of disposable devices and concerns about underage vaping.
Material Focus, a charity, believes that sales of single-use devices have doubled from 2022 and are running at 360m a year. Rex Zhang, the director of strategy at China-based Smoore International, the world’s largest vape manufacturer, estimates that Britain accounts for around 40% of the European disposables market. Supermarkets, convenience stores, petrol stations and launderettes all stock them.
Both the Local Government Association and the Scottish government have called for a complete ban on disposables. That’s partly because most of them end up in landfill. It is also because youngsters can get hold of them easily. Although selling to under 18s is already illegal, enforcement is slow. Responses to freedom of information requests covering London’s ten boroughs and the 11 largest regional boroughs revealed that between 2018 and 2021 there were only 21 successful prosecutions for illegal vape sales and the total value of all fines was A paltry £2,188.
Owners are open to more regulation. Douglas Mutter, director at VPZ, says sales of disposable devices make up less than 15% of its revenue. The industry wants a licensing scheme, similar to that required to sell alcohol, and automatic fines of up to £10,000 for breaches.
What he does not want is for the government to follow Australia and some American states in banning flavors to reduce the appeal of vaping to young people. Even smokers prefer flavors. “Just because kids are buying alcohol doesn’t mean we should only be allowed to drink methylated spirits,” is how one attendee at a vaping industry bash in London put it this week. According to Mr Zhang, Britain is a global leader in vaping regulation. International manufacturers are watching to see if the company’s prospects smell as sweet as the vapor it produces. ■