Societal concern about young people vaping is an issue firmly on our radar and one that has shot up the political agenda in the last few months, particularly following recent remarks from the Prime Minister. According to a YouGov survey, experimental vaping among 11- to 17-year-olds is up from 7.7% in 2022 to 11.6% in 2023.
There are multiple factors that might explain that. The explosion in popularity of single-use disposable vapes since 2021. The widespread illegal sale of vapes to under-18s. A loophole that allows free samples to be given to children. Products and packaging designed to appeal to them. The age-old issue of young people’s desire to try new things, fuelled by peer group pressure. And finally, and as the PM and other commentators have suggested, advertising for vapes particularly on social media.
There’s already law covering vaping ads. Ads for nicotine-containing vapes not licensed as medicines are allowed in some media, including cinema, posters and public transport. But they’re not allowed on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and, crucially, most online media including social media. (The very limited exception to that is factual, not promotional, claims on companies’ own websites.)
Our advertising rules reflect that law. And where vapes can legally be advertised, they go further: the content of the ads must be responsible, and that includes not being targeted at or likely to appeal particularly to under-18s. That enables advertisers legitimately to advertise their vapes responsibly to adult smokers, provided those ads are not targeted, through content or placement, at under-18s.
So under existing law and our advertising rules, advertising shouldn’t be a factor in under-18 vaping. And we’re taking action to make sure that’s the case.
A few weeks’ ago, we published two rulings, against HQD Tech UK and Green Fun Alliance Ltd t/a Elf Bar, for running influencer ads on TikTok. We quickly made sure those ads were removed. One of the rulings concerned Elf Bar, currently the disposable vape most popular with under-18s*.
We’ve stepped up our monitoring of such influencer ads, which simply shouldn’t be appearing; we've got three other formal investigations underway on the back of that. We’re exploring using our in-house AI capability to help. We’re stepping up our work with TikTok and other platforms to prevent such ads appearing in the first place, and to quickly take down any that do. And we’re working closely with other regulators and enforcement bodies.
All with a view to reducing - as far as is practically possible - under-18 exposure to non-compliant vape ads.
There are challenges. Identifying what is and isn’t advertising on social media is important, but sometimes tricky. As the advertising regulator, it’s not our role to stop individuals, however young, posting their own content on social media platforms. We only step in when they’ve collaborated with vaping companies.
And, of course, advertising is only one part of the bigger problem of the products themselves – which worryingly include illegal vapes with high nickel, chromium and lead content - and their availability to under-18s. Tackling that problem at source – the products and their packaging, their import into the country, their sale to under-18s – calls for a coordinated effort as well as ensuring enforcement bodies have sufficient resources and legal certainty to take tough enforcement action.
Our role is to ensure that vaping ads only appear where they can legally be advertised and are responsible. Currently, they are sometimes being placed in social media and targeted at young people. It’s a top priority for us to stamp that out. One vaping ad on these channels is one too many.
ASA Chief Executive, Guy Parker.
*According to a report by Action on Smoking and Health.
Guy became Chief Executive of the ASA, the UK regulator of ads in all media, in 2009. Responsible for executing the ASA’s strategy to make UK ads responsible, he oversees all functions of the ASA system. Read more