The UK: a Leader in Tobacco Harm Reduction, is Proposing a Vape Tax. Wait What?

Up until a couple of months back we revered the UK in the same way as Sweden, for being so progressive and including the use of safer nicotine alternatives such as vapes in its national smoking cessation strategy. Despite the success acheived by this, the country’s first ever specific tax on nicotine e-liquids has been announced.

UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has recently announced the tax as part of the national budget. Its aim is to discourage vaping among young people and non-smokers, and it is set to take effect in 2026. The tax would vary based on nicotine levels, with nicotine-free e-liquids taxed an additional £1 per 10 milliliters, and higher-nicotine e-liquids facing an extra £3 per 10 ml.

The UK government’s decision to impose this tax has sparked criticism from tobacco harm reduction (THR) and public health experts, who had previously praised the UK’s tobacco control strategy. The UK aims to achieve “smoke-free” status by 2030, with past policies supporting vaping as a means to reach this goal.

However, recent concerns about youth vaping have led to measures such as the ban on disposable vapes, and this tax. While acknowledging the role of vapes in smoking cessation, Hunt announced a one-off increase in tobacco duty to maintain a financial incentive for choosing vaping over smoking.

Despite this slight advantage for vapes, British vapers have expressed feeling betrayed by a government who had so far encouraged vaping as a smoking alternative. Many worry about the financial burden, with vape costs expected to nearly double. Especially given that the tax hike disproportionately affects those who rely on higher-nicotine products for smoking cessation, making vaping less accessible and affordable.

THR advocates agree that the tax contradicts government efforts to promote vaping as a safer alternative to smoking. They fear that making vapes more expensive will discourage smokers from switching and ultimately result in more deaths from smoking-related illnesses.

The tax undermines the country’s former leadership in tobacco control
The New Nicotine Alliance (NNA) has spoken against the proposed tax, stating it will cost lives and undermine the country’s former leadership in tobacco control. Besides  contradicting the government’s previous efforts to reduce smoking-related diseases through harm reduction strategies, the tax also hinders the government’s own Swap to Stop campaign, which encourages smokers to switch to vaping products, highlighted the group.

Moreover, the tax demonstrates a lack of understanding of how vaping devices help reduce smoking prevalence. The NNA argues that the tax will lead to increased smoking rates, hinder progress towards the Smokefree 2030 goal, and boost illicit vape trade.  NNA Chair Louise Ross, agreed that higher taxes on e-liquids will disproportionately affect former smokers heavily dependent on nicotine, particularly those from disadvantaged communities.

Former Director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Clive Bates, reiterated that the tax as counterproductive to public health goals and warnedSDG against its unintended consequences, such as promoting criminal networks and irresponsible marketing.

The tax risks reversing the progress acheived by the UK so far
Similarly, the World Vapers Alliance (WVA) said that the UK’s newly announced vaping tax threatens the country’s progress in combating smoking, as it counteracts previous harm reduction policies and raises concerns about accessibility to smoking cessation aids. WVA Director Michael Landl, explained that the tax jeopardizes the lives of former smokers and vapers by making alternative products less affordable.

He argued that taxing vaping cancels out efforts to reduce smoking rates and may lead to a surge in the black market. Landl suggests following Sweden’s example of lowering taxes on harm reduction products like snus, which has contributed greatly to its smoke-free goal.

Like Sweden, the UK had so far been a leader in achieving record low smoking cessation through vaping, but the new tax risks reversing any progress. The NNA urges the government to consult with consumer and public health experts to develop effective policies that prioritize public health and reduce smoking-related diseases.