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The new European Union Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) entered into force on 19 May 2014. It introduced new regulatory controls on electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes, sometimes referred to as ‘vapes’), as well as setting out requirements on tobacco products. The UK Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 implemented the TPD in full. This Commons Library Briefing Paper outlines the new product requirements for e-cigarettes and identifies where national regulations have gone beyond what is in the TPD.

The briefing does not cover the environmental impact of e-cigarettes. This is addressed in the Library debate pack on the Environmental impact of disposable vapes (November 2022).

The use of e-cigarettes

Unlike conventional cigarettes, e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco or involve burning and thus do not produce carbon monoxide, tar or smoke. They work by heating a solution of water, flavouring, propylene glycol, and, typically, nicotine to create a vapour that the user inhales. Using an e-cigarette is often described as ‘vaping’ rather than smoking. It was estimated that, in 2021, almost 4 million people (7.7%) aged 16 and over in Great Britain were using e-cigarettes, up from 3.7% of over 18s in 2014. Survey data indicates that consumers are increasingly turning to e-cigarettes to cut back on smoking tobacco, or to quit tobacco completely.

Debates on the benefits and risks of e-cigarettes, particularly regarding their safety and health implications, are ongoing and will continue as more evidence becomes available. Most recently, concerns have been raised about data, published in 2022, indicating an increase in the use of vapes by those aged under 18, with ‘disposable vapes’ (pre-filled with liquid and used only once) becoming increasingly popular with this age group. The Government issued a call for evidence on ‘youth vaping’ in April 2023 to “identify opportunities to reduce the number of children accessing and using vapes” as well as to explore issues such as the marketing and promotion of vaping products. The Government has also announced plans to close the “loophole” that allows companies to give out free samples of vaping products to under 18s.

Tobacco Products Directive

The European Union Tobacco Products Directive entered into force on 19 May 2014, with the UK Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 implementing the TPD in full across the UK. According to the European Commission, the TPD’s aim is to “improve the functioning of the internal market for tobacco and related products while ensuring a high level of health protection for European citizens”. Article 20 of the TPD introduces new regulatory controls for nicotine-containing e-cigarettes and refill containers, though it does not cover nicotine-containing products that are authorised as medicines. These controls aim to ensure:

  • minimum standards for the safety and quality of all e-cigarettes and refill containers;
  • that information is provided to consumers so that they can make informed choices;
  • an environment that protects children from starting to use these products.

National regulations

The TPD does not seek to harmonise rules on:

  • smoke-free environments;
  • domestic advertising;
  • domestic sales;
  • age restrictions;
  • nicotine–free cigarettes;
  • flavourings of e-cigarettes.

These elements can all be regulated at a domestic level. England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have each introduced age restrictions on e-cigarettes that prohibit their sale to, and their purchase on behalf of, under 18s. In 2015/16 the Welsh Government attempted to go further and introduce controls on the use of e-cigarettes in public places, though the Bill was subsequently rejected by the Welsh Assembly. The Scottish Government has made provision, through the Health (Tobacco, Nicotine etc. and Care) (Scotland) Act 2016, to restrict the advertising of vapour products through secondary legislation, though regulations are not yet in place.

The Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 were subsequently amended by the Tobacco Products and Nicotine Inhaling Products (Amendment Etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and 2020 to enable tobacco and e-cigarette regulation to continue to function following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

The sale of illicit vapes that do not comply with the 2016 Regulations has been reported as a growing problem by Trading Standards. Freedom of Information requests to 125 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales in June 2023 indicated that “more than two and a half million illicit e-cigarettes were collected [by Trading Standards] since the beginning of 2020”. Such products may be seized because they contain banned ingredients, have tank sizes larger than the illegal limit, and/or exceed the permitted nicotine strength. In April 2023, the Government announced the creation of a specialised “illicit vapes enforcement squad” to address the sale of illicit vapes. 

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