South Africa’s Posture Towards Vaping Will Only Harm Smokers

The posture adopted by South Africa towards Electronic Vapour Products (EVPs) is quite alarming, as it is mainly based on pre-conceived positions and not scientific evidence. The Department of Health (DoH) has been leading the onslaught and it seems other government departments and agencies have fallen in line without question.

In 2018, DoH released the draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (COTPENDS) Bill for public comments. The draft bill seeks to introduce stricter measures for controlling the consumption and sale of tobacco products, including ban in public smoking; retail display bans; and plain packaging to name a few. It also proposes the same measures be applied to EVPs. Given the nature of the EVP industry, the proposed bill is illogical. Firstly, vaping differs from smoking. Secondly, the EVP industry in South Africa mainly consists of small standalone stores. Thirdly, plain packaging will simply not work for vaping products.

Outside of the illogical proposals in the draft bill concerning vaping, the DoH has overlooked one fundamental aspect about vaping in relation to smoking. Credible institutions, such as Public Health England (PHE) and Royal College of Physicians, have proven that vaping is 95% safer than combustible tobacco and represents a revolutionary approach to the tobacco control agenda. The Cochrane Library has, based on extensive data and studies, concluded that EVPs are a more successful smoking cessation aids compared to Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs). The argument by the DoH is that some EVPs contain nicotine and, due to its addictive nature, tobacco companies seek to maintain and capture a new younger market through EVPs. This, again, is illogical. Nicotine is not only found in cigarettes and nicotine EVPs, it can also found in a number of sources such as tomatoes. While nicotine has been branded as a harmful substance, the Royal College of Physicians, along with other reputable institutions, noted that while smokers smoke for the nicotine, they die from tar and other harmful chemicals found in combustible tobacco products.

Taking queue from DoH, is the National Treasury, which released a Discussion paper on the taxation of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) and Electronic Non-Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENNDS). The National Treasury bases most of its paper on DoH’s position and posture towards EVPs.  The paper further to dismisses PHE’s stance on vaping being less harmful than smoking as ‘in dispute’. National Treasury goes on to state that the potential of young people taking up vaping provides enough basis to introduce a tax on vaping as a form of deterrent. It is odd for National Treasury to take up such a position and completely dismiss the plethora of evidence that youth vaping is not the crisis that is made up to be. In the United States (US), the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Youth Tobacco Survey has seen consistent declines in youth e-cigarette use since 2019. This trend has also been witnessed in the UK, with Action on Smokers and Health (ASH) latest SmokeFree youth survey showing that youth e-cigarette use remains low, and that most young people who had never smoked had also never vaped.

One would have also thought that Treasury’s position would also consider the economic benefits of encouraging smokers to switch to vaping. As seen in the United Kingdom, vaping has resulted in a decrease in smoking rates and related deaths. This in turn leads to  less of a burden on the public health system. Though still in its infancy, the vaping industry in South Africa has contributed to the country’s employment and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A study by NKC African Economics found that the vaping industry supported 9,500 jobs across three channels of impact in 2019. In the same year, the industry made R1.25 billion in sales, contributing R2.5 billion to GDP through its supply chain and paying R710 million in taxes.

With vaping products and industry operating in a legislative vacuum, the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA), in an attempt to ensure the safety of vaping products and protect consumers, embarked on a process to introduce standards for vaping products in South Africa. This is in addition to VPASA’s separate code of conduct imposed on members, to guide the selling of vaping products in members’ stores. Despite industry efforts to ensure the development of standards, there is reluctance to making sure this happens. This reluctance from a standards body and refusal to participate in such a process from critical government stakeholders renders consumers vulnerable to unsafe and illicit products. Ensuring that vaping products are subject to set standards is the country’s best shot at avoiding any health-related breakout from unregulated products, as seen with the outbreak of E-Cigarette or Vaping Use-Associated Lung Injury (EVALI) in the US. The industry, unfortunately, cannot pursue this independently.

By cherry-picking evidence, gatekeeping and refusing to engage in earnest conversations on the role vaping can play in tobacco harm reduction are tantamount to an unwarranted and coordinated attack on the vaping industry, which ultimately is a direct attack on thousands of smokers who would benefit from enjoying access to lifesaving potentially less harmful alternatives.