All over the world, politicians are looking at ways to regulate vaping products; almost all their ideas are bad. Even in the UK, which is probably the most pro-vaping country, the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive is already chipping away at what we can buy and it’s going to get a lot worse in May.
Vaping advocates have a lot of arguments to use against excessive regulations, and one of those is that the industry can actually do a very good job of regulating itself. A perfect example is the diacetyl scare. Diacetyl is a chemical that’s often used as an artificial flavouring. It naturally occurs in butter and wine, among other things, and it’s perfectly safe to consume. However, it’s not safe to inhale. There have been several cases of workers exposed to large quantities of diacetyl who then developed a serious, incurable lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as popcorn lung.
It’s worth pointing out that diacetyl is associated with popcorn lung – most of the known cases worked in a single US factory that made microwave popcorn flavoured with diacetyl – but it’s not yet certain that it causes it. Even more importantly, cigarette smoke contains much higher levels of diacetyl than any e-liquid that’s ever been sold – between 100 and almost 30,000 times higher – and no known case of popcorn lung has ever been caused by smoking. All the evidence is that inhaling the quantities of diacetyl that were used to flavour e-liquids posed little or no danger.
The industry cleans up
Nevertheless, the e-liquid industry quickly started looking for alternative flavourings and the number of liquids flavoured with diacetyl fell sharply. Many liquid makers began to state that their products were diacetyl-free; some even published lab test results on their websites to prove it. When one California brand turned out to have continued using high levels of the chemical, consumers reacted with outrage. Now, most liquids don’t contain detectable levels of diacetyl – and that was accomplished without a single law being passed.
There are other examples of the industry making safety improvements while politicians and public health activists simply insisted they just didn’t know enough about the risks. Some scientists are still worried about the risk of inhaling tin particles, although the tin found in some early e-cigarettes came from soldered joints in the atomisers. The industry stopped making atomisers with soldered joints years ago. The current panic is about battery explosions, but these only really happen with mech mods, which are no longer a mainstream product. All the big companies have moved on to producing regulated mods with multiple safety features.
The dark side
However, all is not rosy. While manufacturers have generally been very good at making safety improvements there are still issues. In fact, some of them seem to be getting worse. With one exception these issues don’t create any safety risks, but they are handing useful ammunition to the people who’d like to see harsh restrictions imposed by law.
Firstly, there’s mech mods. Experienced vapers have been using them for years, and some still believe that they give a better quality of vape than a regulated device. It doesn’t really matter if this is true or not; as long as they’re in the hands of people who know what they’re doing the risk of an accident is very low.
Unfortunately mechs are fashionable among the cloud-chasing fraternity, and some prominent YouTube vapers still recommend them. Combine this with shops that will sell them to anybody and a lot of them are getting into inexperienced hands. This is why there’s a steady stream of press reports about exploding e-cigs. It’s all very well to say “People shouldn’t buy things if they don’t know how to use them safely,” but this is not a helpful attitude.
It doesn’t matter if the people who blow themselves up with mech mods should have known better. What matters is that they blow themselves up and the media report it. Sneering at them for being idiots won’t help us much when politicians decide they need to be seen to do something, and slam the whole industry with tough restrictions. You can guarantee that they won’t bother to learn the difference between mech and regulated mods; they’ll just tax, regulate and ban.
There’s another problem though, and although it’s not getting as much media attention right now it could turn out to be even bigger. One of the standard arguments used against electronic cigarettes is that they’re “marketed at children”. This is fairly obvious rubbish; why chase pocket money when you can market to millions of smokers who’re used to handing out serious cash for their habit? In any case, when the TPD comes fully into effect, UK vendors will hardly be allowed to market at all.
So the industry isn’t marketing to children, but some vendors certainly look like they are. A few months ago, a Malaysian brand called Pokéjuice started appearing in UK vape shops. Yes, the average Pokémon Go player is in their 20s or 30s, but really? E-liquid bottles with cartoon characters on the labels are an absolute gift to hostile journalists and health organisations. It makes no sense for vendors to create adverse publicity like this.
Last October BBC News – a website with a global audience – ran a story entitled, “E-liquids that ‘look like children’s sweets’ taken off shelves”. How are we supposed to persuade people that vapour products aren’t marketed at kids when shops are openly selling liquids in a package that looks like a tub of ice cream? This is incredibly stupid. It’s also illegal, by the way, and several vaping advocates have started reporting vendors that do it to their local Trading Standards office.
Overall the vaping industry has done a good job of regulating itself. Constant product improvements have done more for user safety than the slow-moving regulatory process could ever have achieved. Sadly, all this good work is in danger of being undone by rogue vendors. If the product might explode, or uses stolen intellectual property, or can be portrayed as aimed at children, it’s going to generate bad publicity. Vendors need to stop selling this junk before it harms us all.