Vaping in South Africa: Maximise the benefits of low-risk alternatives, while minimising their access to young people

Vaping has become an increasingly divisive issue in recent years throughout the globe, including in South Africa, particularly when it comes to youth vaping. As Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Health moves to process the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control (TPEDSC) Bill, it is crucial to dispel exaggerated narratives and to approach this issue with factual information. This is significant considering that one of the rationales by the Department of Health for introducing the bill hinges on limiting access to vaping products by young people.

Less exaggeration, more focus on solutions

While it is true that youth vaping is a concern, the notion of an epidemic is often overstated. Recent studies conducted in South Africa and other parts of the globe show that the number of teenagers who have tried vaping is much lower compared to other substances such as alcohol and tobacco. A 2021 Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS-SA) survey conducted by the Medical Research Council found just 2.2% of people aged 15 or older used e-cigarettes, and that e-cigarette use was highest among people aged between 15 and 24, at 3.1%. This shows that the so-called pandemic is largely exaggerated. However, 3.1% is still high as far as we are concerned. We have consistently reiterated that vaping is for adult smokers wishing to quit or have access to nicotine in less harmful forms. This is supported by numerous studies which have proven that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking and, in some instances, can play a role in smoking cessation.

Regulations that seek to punish smokers in the name of protecting young people from taking up vaping will do more harm than good in the long run. Instead, we should be looking at regulations that seek to maximise the benefits of low-risk alternatives such as vaping products, while minimising their access to youth or non-smokers.

More Education, Less fearmongering

Fearmongering has its limits, especially if it does not rely on extensive evidence to back it up. That is precisely the posture that has been adopted by the Department of Health (DoH) and anti-vaping advocates. In instilling fear in the minds of the public, they are waging a war on nicotine, through misinformation. The anti-vaping advocates have been on their crusade for years now and their strategy does not seem to be working, at least with the public. Evidence from campaigns against HIV/Aids have shown the success that can be achieved with collective education and awareness programs.

The Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) has been engaged on a Youth Access Prevention (YAP) initiative to educate and create awareness on vaping and prevent young people from accessing these products. However, the VPASA acting alone is not enough and for the initiative to be more effective, there needs to be collective effort from all the parties concerned.

The proposed Bill Misses the Mark

The TPEDSC Bill in its current form is akin to amputating one’s foot to remedy a headache. The COVID-19 lockdown regulations experience should have shown the department that prohibition, only enriches the illicit market and becomes harder to enforce. Unfortunately, the DoH has thus far avoided any scrutiny of its proposals, by ignoring those with different views, in favour of an echo chamber of the anti-vaping brigade. Hopefully, parliament does not fall into the same trap and process the bill in a fair and balanced manner. It is unfortunate that the Department of Health’s disdain for the tobacco and vaping industries has blinded it to the real solutions that are already out there and have been proven to be effectiveHow else does one explain the blatant South African government’s ignorance of the scientific and real-world experiences from the United Kingdom and Sweden on the effectiveness of tobacco harm reduction strategies that incorporate less harmful alternatives to tobacco?