Protecting Young People is a Collective Responsibility

Youth month, commemorated during June in South Africa, not only provides the country an opportunity to reflect on past events and sacrifices, but to also ponder on current hurdles and challenges faced by young people. It is an opportunity to reflect on the role that all South Africans can play to promote the interests of young people in the country. For the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA), the month has provided an opportunity for the association to strengthen its commitment to prevent youth vaping. Given that youth vaping is not only an issue of access –  a multi stakeholder, and collaborative approach from industry, government, civil society and guardians is required.

Youth vaping has emerged as a key concern for all stakeholders over the last few years. Though this has not been quantified in South Africa, there is anecdotal evidence that risk-prone youth have taken up vaping on a trial basis. For this reason, government has cited youth vaping as a key determinant behind the stringent regulations proposed in the draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill (the Bill), which was published for public comment in May 2018. This concern is echoed in the National Treasury’s Discussion Document on the Taxation of Electronic Nicotine and Non-nicotine Delivery Systems published in December 2021.

Although VPASA shares government’s concern on youth vaping, it is not clear at this stage how the proposed measures, both in the Bill and through taxation, will deal with the issue of youth vaping. Quite disappointingly, government does not seem to have taken the time to study the nature of the problem. Rather it appears government is taking a position which is not grounded on verifiable evidence, nor supported by evidence from across the globe. The latter shows that youth vaping has not emerged as the kind of problem that many feared it would become in places such as the United Kingdom (UK), European Union (EU), and the United States of America (US). Though the incidence of vaping by young people increased at a certain point in time, it appears for many youth their dalliance with vaping was entirely experimental and did not become an entrenched habit and vaping incidence among youth has since declined.

VPASA has remained adamant in its view that the protection of minors should be done carefully to balance the interests of smokers who wish to switch to vaping. A blanket approach that regards vaping in the same way as smoking is liable to perpetuate the harms of smoking. For this reason, VPASA strongly believes that the proposed tax on vaping products is entirely misguided. Similarly, VPASA maintains its position that vaping should be regulated separately as part of a tobacco harm reduction approach. Such an approach should consider youth protection as well as the legitimate interests of adult smokers.

This view is supported by multiple scientific studies and data as well as the experiences of multiple countries across the world who have witnessed the merits of embracing a tobacco harm reduction approach. Various countries, including the UK and New Zealand, have successfully embraced the use of electronic delivery products (EVPs) as a tobacco control measure whilst ensuring that young people have limited access. In embracing the available scientific evidence, both countries have formulated a sensible approach to EVP consumption that benefits a wider public health agenda while protecting young people.

As part of its responsibility, VPASA has launched and successfully run a Youth Access Prevention (YAP) campaign that has seen its members commit to not selling EVPs to persons under 18. VPASA’s revamped campaign has now focused on additional measures, including a relook at the packaging of e-liquids to ensure that they are not appealing to young consumers.

What is clear is that both government and the industry agree on a need to regulate the industry, and prioritising the protection of young people, a responsibility that should be shared by both parties. In working towards this, it is vital that government works with all stakeholders, not only those that echo its position. It is only through a collaborative effort that the country will successfully implement a sensible, effective approach to the regulation of EVPs.