Marketing of vapes to children ‘utterly unacceptable’, says Chris Whitty

21 February 2023

England’s chief medical officer voices concern as vape use among 11- to 17-year-olds doubles in two years

By Andrew Gregory, The Guardian

Children are being targeted with “appalling” and “utterly unacceptable” marketing of vapes, England’s chief medical officer has said as he called for urgent action to reverse a rise in the number of adolescents vaping.

It is illegal to sell vapes to under-18s, but national surveys suggest the proportion of children aged 11 to 17 who vape has nearly doubled in just two years. In 2022, the figure was 7% – up from 4% in 2020, according to a YouGov survey for Action on Smoking and Health.

“I think everyone agrees that marketing vaping, an addictive product, with … unknown consequences for developing minds, to children is utterly unacceptable,” Prof Sir Chris Whitty told MPs. “Yet it is happening. There’s no doubt it’s happening because, although from a low base, the rates of vaping have doubled in the last couple of years among children. So that is an appalling situation.”

Giving evidence to the health and social care committee about prevention of ill health on Tuesday, Whitty said it was clear some products were deliberately intended to appeal to underage children, and that more must be done to rapidly reduce vaping among under-18s.

“Is it reasonable to have, in any case, flavours and colours that are clearly aimed at essentially encouraging people to vape who may well not be vaping at all?

“I think we need to be much more serious, in my view, that trying everything we can to reduce vaping in children, as well as smoking in children, is really important, whilst trying what we can do to make sure that vaping is available for those for whom that is the route out of smoking.”

Whitty said existing smokers should still switch to vapes because they were healthier than cigarettes. “Everyone agrees, I think, that it is far safer for someone to vape than to smoke,” he said.

“So if the choice has to be between one of two of those – they’re smoking heavily now, they want to come off smoking, and they can move on to vaping, they can’t just completely stop, then that is a net benefit in health terms.

“And vaping has an important role as a public health tool to help smokers who are addicted … to come off smoking.”

But he expressed alarm that there were “clearly” some products “which look as if they’re being marketed, in reality, at children”.

“And I think we should look very seriously at these products for which the child market appears to be the principal market and say: ‘Why are we considering this to be a good thing to have?’”

Whitty also took aim at junk food companies, including those that market products to children.

“If advertising didn’t make an effect on people’s behaviours, then people [companies] wouldn’t pay the very large sums they do for it,” he told MPs. “And that’s a self-evidently true statement.”

He said “obesity is going in the wrong direction” and called for more focus to be put on preventing ill health in deprived areas.

John Dunne, the director general of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), said its position was that “much more should be done to prevent youth access to vaping products”.

He added: “We have long called for a licensing of retailers and much more meaningful and stronger fines (up to £10,000) for those who sell vapes to under-18s, and in the coming weeks we will submit a plan to government with detailed proposals for tighter regulation.”


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