South Africa’s Vaping Regulations Should Appreciate Emerging Data

Discussions around the appropriate regulation of electronic vaping products (EVPs) have constantly seen regulators claim that not enough is known about these products, owing to the vaping industry being relatively young. Several governments, including South Africa, have used this to justify drafting regulatory proposals that are not underpinned by sound scientific evidence but are grounded on unfounded fears and biases. While fears about the dangers of vaping may have been prudent five years ago, it is patently misguided to continue relying on these fears as a basis for making public policy.

Since 2018, there has been an avalanche of scientific publications which have proven beyond reasonable doubt that even though nicotine vaping may be addictive, it is nowhere near as harmful as smoking. With the month of May being World No Tobacco Month, the anti-vaping lobby has been hard at work spinning a narrative of gloom and doom about vaping with absolute disregard for science and the emerging consensus about the harms of vaping and how these should be dealt with from a policy perspective.

The Global Atlas Report, published by Vital Strategies and the Tobacconomics team at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released some encouraging findings. The report found that, for the first time, global smoking prevalence had fallen. Another important study published this month, by researchers from the University of Queensland (Australia), found that approximately 8.6% of adolescents reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, but only 1.7% engaged in frequent vaping. This suggests that most adolescents who vape are experimenting, but not making it a habit.

These recent findings are not isolated pieces of research but form part of a growing body of literature proving the positive effects of vaping on quit smoking efforts and ongoing global reductions in youth vaping numbers. Examples include a 2021 Cochrane Library Review which concluded that “there was moderate‐certainty evidence, limited by imprecision, that quit rates were higher in people randomized to nicotine e-cigarettes than in those randomized to nicotine replacement therapy”. In 2020, the Action on Smoking and Health UK (ASH) found that regular e-cigarette use amongst youth remains very low. Most young people who have never smoked, according to the study, have also never vaped. Between 0.8% and 1.3% of young people who had never smoked were current vapers.

The above-mentioned studies have implications for policy proposals that heavily rely on claims of increasing youth vaping numbers and assumptions that vaping may lead to increased tobacco consumption to justify the introduction of stringent regulations.

South African Government Remains Ignorant of Global Emerging Data

The South African government continues to turn its back to emerging evidence, perhaps informed by the unjustifiable position of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The vaping community in South Africa has been consistent in calling for an evidence-based approach to the regulation of the industry. The Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Delivery Systems (CTPENDS) Bill proposed by the Department of Health (DoH) in 2018, which attempts to impose similar regulations for vaping and smoking, is outdated, unscientific, and completely violates the doctrine of tobacco harm reduction, which has proven to be effective in jurisdictions where it has been embraced. Instead of keeping abreast with emerging global data supporting the efficacy of EVPs, the DoH has continuously presented the fallacious argument that not much is known about vaping –despite mounting evidence proving that vaping is a safer alternative to harmful smoking.

Government’s willful disregard of the science on vaping is also behind attempts to implement a vaping tax in South Africa. National Treasury’s attempts to introduce a tax by 1 January 2023 seems destined to destroy the legal industry and deprive smokers of less harmful alternatives to smoking.

Let’s Talk Science, Not Ideology

It is fundamentally important to highlight that the vaping industry shares government’s vision of eliminating smoking in South Africa. The road to this outcome requires that government takes an open mind to science and sheds its ideological posture which equates nicotine addiction with tobacco addiction. Given the many complexities that have arisen since government introduced the CTPENDS Bill in 2018, perhaps South Africa is ripe for a complete and critical review of its tobacco control legislative framework involving all interested stakeholders. Emerging evidence ought to play a central role in shaping governments’ thinking on vaping. In fact, it is essential that science remains a central pillar of government’s policy making apparatus as there exits an intrinsically important relationship between evidence and public policy making.