Government’s Approach to Vaping Will Not Help Achieve Its Intended Purpose

Government’s proposed Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control (TPEDSC) Bill is currently before Parliament, as it surges forward with its intention to regulate vapour products in the same manner as traditional tobacco products.

If passed into law in its current form, the Bill will ban vaping in public places and outdoor areas. It will also give the Minister of Health unfettered powers to regulate the sale and advertising of electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), popularly known as ‘vapes’. The Minister will also have the power to regulate the packaging and appearance of vaping products, and to make provision for the standardisation of their packaging. It also seeks to provide standards in respect of vape manufacturing and importing, which will include a ban on flavours.  

It is extremely important to reduce the health burden that traditional smoking has on SA’s public healthcare system. However, as the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA), we believe it is equally important to note that similar draconian laws implemented in other countries have not proven successful in doing this, and that policies that both incentivise and provide support to smokers to quit have yielded far better results.

The Department of Health’s (DoH) approach and attitude towards ENDS is particularly puzzling, as vaping has been proven to play a role in tobacco harm reduction and in the reduction of smoking rates in countries where it has been adopted as a national policy.

Countries such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand have demonstrated that a mixture of laws and policies encouraging smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives can yield positive results. In the UK, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the number of people smoking in the UK has dropped to its lowest level on record in 2021. The office also found that around 13% of people aged 18 or over smoked cigarettes in 2021, down from 14% in 2020. The ONS said that vaping devices such as e-cigarettes had played a “major role” in reducing the numbers of smokers across the UK. It further added that vaping may not be the only factor contributing to a drop in smoking numbers; increased public awareness campaigns likely also played a role.

Quite how the DoH can ignore what the UK has achieved in a short space of time beggars belief. The DoH states that its ENDS regulatory proposals are based on recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which encourage countries to almost ban vaping entirely. This despite the emerging scientific evidence supporting ENDS as a less-harmful alternative when compared to tobacco. Thus, instead of embracing vaping and its potential role in tobacco harm reduction, the WHO has chosen to cast vaping extremely negatively.

Blindly adopting the WHO’s recommendations, ignoring the specific South African context, as well as scientific evidence and the successes that other countries such as the UK have achieved with the help of vaping, will be the folly of the DoH. The DoH would do well to be cognisant of the unintended consequences of ignoring science and views from stakeholders.

As we saw during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the banning of the sale of alcohol and tobacco products failed to stop consumers from accessing these products. Instead, the ban created further opportunities for the illicit market to thrive. As things stand, the South African tobacco market is now dominated by the illicit tobacco cigarettes, which has seen government lose revenue, impact jobs in the tobacco supply chain,  and ultimately, increased the burden on public health systems.

All is not lost though: with the parliamentary process set to unfold in 2023, there is still hope that sanity will prevail when it comes to vaping. The vaping industry will hope that Parliament, unlike the DoH, will engage in open conversations on the scientific evidence for the potential of vaping as a harm reduction tool, and regulate it accordingly.  There is ample scientific and policy evidence to support the adoption of vaping as part of South Africa’s tobacco harm reduction strategy.

South Africa would be wise to not miss such an opportunity to reduce smoking prevalence in the country, which has been persistently high for many decades. As the saying goes “an opportunity missed, is an opportunity lost”.