Banning flavoured vaping products in the UK would drive people back to smoking, Public Health England (PHE) has said.
Responding to US President Donald Trump’s plan to axe flavourings due to concerns about youths taking up e-cigarettes, PHE said the flavours helped smokers switch from more dangerous tobacco.
PHE has come under fire from some academics over its stance on e-cigarettes, with some saying it wilfully ignores evidence that vaping is harmful.
Martin Dockrell, head of tobacco control at PHE, said it plans to publish a comprehensive evidence review on the safety of e-cigarettes early next year.
In a statement to the PA news agency, he said: “E-cigarette flavours are an important advantage that vapes have over smoking and play an important part in encouraging smokers to switch.
“Similar choice of flavours exist in the US and UK and yet we do not have the same levels of youth vaping here.
“Our much lower rates are due to our much stricter advertising regulations and possibly our lower nicotine cap.
“Banning flavours would just likely provoke vapers to relapse back to smoking, leading to more adult smoking role models for young people, which we know is the key driver in young people starting to smoke.”
Professor John Newton, director for health improvement at PHE, said: “PHE has always been clear that vaping is not without risks. If you don’t smoke, don’t vape.
“But if you smoke, there is no situation where it would be better for your health to continue smoking rather than switching completely to vaping. The sooner you stop smoking completely the better.”
Data published by PHE in February shows the number of children and young people trying vaping is on the rise.
While overall use of e-cigarettes among young people remains low, the number who have ever tried it has almost doubled in four years.
The report, led by researchers at King’s College London, looked at surveys relating to e-cigarette use among young people, the most recent of which was the Action on Smoking and Health YouGov survey of more than 2,000 children aged 11 to 18 in 2018.
The survey showed that 11.7% of 11 to 18-year-olds in 2018 had tried e-cigarettes once or twice at some point, almost double the 6.5% in 2014.
Awareness of vaping has also risen, and the proportion who said they had never tried e-cigarettes fell from 91.5% in 2014 to 83.4% in 2018.
Some 3.4% of those polled in 2018 reported using e-cigarettes currently – more than double the 1.6% in 2014.
In 2018, 1.8% reported using them at least once a month but not weekly, and a further 1.7% reported using them at least weekly.
Awareness of e-cigarettes, experimentation and use were higher among older children, the report said.
Some 96.3% of 11-year-olds had never used an e-cigarette or were unaware of them, compared with 68.4% of 18-year-olds.
When youngsters who had tried an e-cigarette were asked why, 57.2% said they wanted to give it a try, while 16.1% said they liked the flavours.
The proportion trying vaping before a tobacco cigarette rose from 8% in 2014 to 21% in 2018.
Mr Trump, whose youngest son Barron is 13 years old, said vaping has become such a problem that he wants parents to become more aware.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will now develop guidelines to remove from the market all e-cigarette flavours except tobacco.
Mr Trump’s first public comments on vaping come as health authorities investigate hundreds of breathing illnesses reported in people who have used e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.
No single device, ingredient or additive has been identified, though many cases are thought to involve marijuana vaping.
Parents, teachers and health advocates have increasingly called for a crackdown on flavours, arguing that they are overwhelmingly to blame for the explosion in underage vaping by US teens, particularly with small, discreet devices.
Dan Marchant, UK Vaping Industry Association board member, said: “It is a shame that the US president has been poorly advised on the facts; this decision is based on misleading information and will only serve to deter smokers from making a life-changing switch to a far less harmful alternative.
“In the UK, we are proud to be a standard bearer for a consumer-driven industry which has already helped millions of people across the world stop smoking.
“We will continue to work with the public health community in the UK to spread the facts about vaping, which Public Health England continue to advise is 95% less harmful than smoking and is the most effective way for the UK’s remaining seven million smokers to quit.”