The Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly and the Minister for Public Health, Frank Feighan received government approval on 22 November to introduce long-awaited additional restrictions on the sale and advertising of nicotine inhaling products such as e-cigarettes.
Maev Martin talks to Vincent Jennings, CEO of the Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association (CSNA), and to a spokesperson for Vape Business Ireland, about the likely impact of the new regulations – and if they go far enough.
Under the new proposals, the sale of e-cigarettes (and related nicotine inhaling products) will be prohibited from self-service vending machines, from temporary or mobile premises, and at places or events for children. In addition, advertisements for e-cigarettes will be prohibited on public transport, in cinemas and near schools.
The proposals will be incorporated into the Public Health (Tobacco and Nicotine Inhaling Products) Bill, which is currently being drafted.
The Bill is expected to be finalised and published by year-end, and it will be introduced in the Oireachtas in early 2023.
The legislation will be designed to regulate any product that can be used for the consumption of nicotine-containing vapour or any component of that product.
The Bill already contains measures to ban the sale of nicotine inhaling products to those under the age of 18 and to introduce a licensing system for the retail sale of tobacco products and nicotine inhaling products.
Other measures contained in the Bill include: prohibiting the sale of tobacco products and nicotine inhaling products by persons under 18 years of age; prohibiting the sale of tobacco products from self-service vending machines, from temporary or mobile units and at events or locations for children; introducing minimum suspension periods for retailers convicted of offences; and introducing fixed penalty notices for offences.
"These measures are designed to protect our children and young people from starting to vape,” said Minister Donnelly. “We recognise that nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and we are acting today to make these products less accessible to our young people and to remove the advertising for these products from our children’s everyday lives."
The Minister of State with responsibility for Public Health, Well Being and the National Drugs Strategy, Frank Feighan welcomed the government’s approval of the measures.
"Tobacco smoking continues to kill approximately 4,500 people in our country each year,” he said. “We recognise that nicotine inhaling products are used by some adult smokers to assist them to quit tobacco smoking. However, we are clear that these products are of no benefit to our children and young people or to non-smokers and that is why we are taking this action today."
Speaking to RTÉ last month ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Mr Donnelly said he was “very uneasy” about the widespread sale of vaping products to children, and that he would like to see the bill through all stages in the first few months of next year.
Avoiding Regulatory Overkill
Vincent Jennings, CEO of the Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association (CSNA), says that vaping is not a big revenue generator for CSNA member stores, but it has been a growing area in recent years. “Our members are reporting slow and steady growth, and they are also reporting that the vaping products bought by their customers are used as an aid to either curtail in full, or partially their tobacco consumption, which is what vaping products were originally intended to do,” he says.
He also points out that the issue of regulating the sale of vaping products in this country began as a “bolt-on” to the Tobacco Control Bill. “The Department of Health has done nothing about this issue over the past 10 years and that is why it has become such a big issue now,” he says.
“The fact that there are unregulated vaping products in the market at this time can be laid squarely at the feet of the Department of Health and no-one else. However, now that they are doing something, we must ensure that there isn’t overkill in terms of the regulations that are introduced. It is about ensuring that the vaping products on sale are fit for purpose, are only available in certain regulated environments, and aren’t available to underage consumers.
“Apart from that, the CSNA will go along with sensible regulations regarding vaping products. We don’t believe that the State needs to regulate the supply of flavours at this time – it is a choice that has already been given to people in terms of nicotine replacement chewing gums, so we don’t see the logic in removing those options from vaping products. The important point is the age restriction to be imposed on those buying the product."
Of greater concern to the CSNA is the issue of proxy purchasing. “In the UK, Northern Ireland and Scotland there are regulations that make it a criminal offence if someone is supplying tobacco products to someone else who is underage,” he says.
“My understanding is that a lot of the products that are getting into the hands of youngsters in this country are being supplied to them by people older than themselves, so we need to have clear rules in place for tobacco and vaping products that make it a criminal offence to supply these to youngsters, as we have when it comes to alcohol products.
"We would be anxious that the bill would include those prohibitions – they weren’t in the general scheme, but we are hoping that amendments could be made to it if they aren’t already there."
Tobacco Use Among Teenagers
According to the World Health Organisation, there are 16,000 different flavours of vapes, such as bubble gum and gummy bears, and there are concerns that it is a gateway to smoking, with a review by the Health Research Board finding that children who vaped were five times more likely to go on and start smoking.
Speaking to the Irish Independent last month, the Irish Heart Foundation’s (IHF) director of advocacy, Chris Macey, said that tobacco use among teenagers is increasing “for the first time in a generation. The hard-won gains of the last generation, when the smoking rate fell from 41% to 13%, are now at serious risk because of the Government’s failure to take a stronger line against youth use of e-cigarettes.
"Latest statistics show that 39% of 15 to 16-year-olds have used e-cigarettes and 15.5% are regular users.
“However, the numbers may be much higher following a surge in the use of disposable vapes, particularly among teenagers and young adults. In the UK, the number of vapers using disposable e-cigarettes increased from less than one per cent to 56% during the last year.”
Speaking to Checkout, a spokesperson for Vape Business Ireland (VBI) says that the 15.5% figure cited as ‘regular use’ refers to students who said they had used a vaping product, perhaps once, in the past 30 days. “It is a major flaw to conflate this with regular use,” they said.
“The latest data on smoking in Ireland from the Healthy Ireland 2021 survey does not support the claim that smoking rates are increasing among young people. 99% of the vapers surveyed (15 years and over) are ex or current smokers.
"The Health Research Board reviews also found that e-cigarettes are not harmless, but may represent a reduction in harm in relation to smoking, and that e-cigarettes are as effective as nicotine replacement therapies for smoking cessation up to six months.
"Commenting on the new Bill, the Minister for Health also stated, ‘we recognise that nicotine inhaling products are used by some adult smokers to assist them to quit tobacco smoking’.”
Plain Packaging, Disposables, Taxes & Advertising
The Irish Heart Foundation doesn’t believe that the restrictions approved on 22 November go far enough and is calling for a raft of new measures to be introduced, including the introduction of plain packaging of e-cigarettes, a ban on disposable vapes, additional taxes to make e-cigarettes less affordable to children, regulations ensuring that no promotion or advertising of e-cigarettes in any form is permitted, and for the legal age of sale for tobacco and e-cigarettes to be increased to 21.
“At VBI, our members commit under the Code of Conduct to targeting our products only at persons above the age of 18, which includes packaging designs and imagery used,” says the VBI spokesperson.
“We must balance this suboptimal packaging with the fact that contained products help adult smokers switch to the less harmful alternative of vaping. We strongly emphasise that any move to introduce plain packaging requirements risks sending smokers the options for helping smokers on their quit journeys on the table.
"VBI will be responding to the consultation and are open to fully engage with government on the issue.
“Regarding the call for increased taxation on vaping products, smokers need to be incentivised to quit. Vaping is cost-effective and is much cheaper than purchasing a box of cigarettes. The HSE has said that almost one in every four (79%) smokers want to quit. Increasing the taxes on vaping products will only act as a deterrent.
"On advertising, vaping products are already subject to EU regulations under the Tobacco Products Directive. All products sold in Ireland are required to meet the regulations set out in the EU (Manufacture, Presentation and Sale of Tobacco and Related Products) Regulations 2016.
“In addition, VBI members Code of Conduct commits members to not advertising products that are specifically targeted at youths or attempt to replicate or appeal to youth culture.
VBI is equally mindful that adult ex-smokers must be made aware of the availability of vaping products and the reduced harm associated with them – as such, proportional advertising is necessary.”
How does the CSNA feel about the possible introduction of these additional measures? “When it comes to additional taxes or special measures, if it is going to happen it will happen on a European wide front, and my understanding is that it is the considered view of the European Commission that there will be excise levied on vaping products within the next couple of years,” says Vincent Jennings.
“However, if you absolutely restrict a product, and the secondary purchasing of the product, and make it a criminal offence if it is sold to a child, that should be sufficient.
"Regarding plain packaging, this would present enormous difficulties for smaller producers to meet Irish-only legislative restrictions, so it would be a bar to accessing the market for those suppliers. If those suppliers aren’t selling enough into Ireland to make it worthwhile, then you are facilitating bigger suppliers and you are distorting the market.
Increasing The Age Limit To 21
Jennings believes that increasing the age limit for the sale of tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21 years would have a negative impact on retailers.
“We would be nervous about increasing the age from 18 to 21 for tobacco and vaping products, mainly because it follows that, once you put in that restriction, you are also going to have to shortly thereafter place restrictions on the age of the people selling those products,” he says.
“That is a real problem for convenience and other retailers because that could shut off a potential labour source, which is already exhausted and under strain. What would also be of concern to the CSNA is that if people who are in the 18 to 21 year old cohort, who are addicted to a product, were told they couldn’t have it anymore, it could lead to confrontation between customers and staff in-store.
"Therefore, if that measure is to be introduced, there would need to be a long lead in time, but really our preference is that the age stays at 18 – from a public order perspective and from the point of view of accessing staff to service the retail sector.”
Since 2016, VBI has been consistently calling for a ban on the sale of vaping products for those under the age of 18. “From the outset, our association has made clear that vaping products should only be accessed by adult ex-smokers,” says the VBI spokesperson.
“Our members abide by a stringent Code of Conduct which outlines the same. In light of our advocacy efforts, VBI is pleased that a proposed ban on selling vape products to under 18s, as outlined in the Public Health (Tobacco and Nicotine Inhaling Products) Bill was agreed by the government.
"It is crucial that every adult who is seeking to quit smoking has the opportunity to switch to a less harmful alternative and is not prevented from doing so. In the UK, the recent independent review of tobacco policy, Making Smoking Obsolete, recommended that the legal age for smoking rise annually, while that for vaping remain at 18.”