Rosalind Skillen: Disposable vape ban in Britain a win for campaigners - now north must follow

The UK government will ban disposable vapes from 2025

The UK government will ban disposable vapes from 2025

THANK goodness climate campaigners have grasped that simply talking about the environment will not nudge people towards pro-environmental behaviour. Or so, the recent success of the Ban Disposable Vapes campaign in Britain would suggest.

Where a sermon alone will not convince people, the #BanDisposableVapes campaign worked within and across sectors to bind together issues related to the environment, public health and young people in a way that has never really been done before.

The British government’s landmark decision to ban disposable vapes in early 2025 comes after a year of campaigning. When you think about it, a year, or just over, is a relatively short amount of time in the lifeline of a campaign. Some campaigns can take decades to reach their objective. Others never do.

That being said, at present the ban will only apply to Britain. It is up to Stormont health minister Robin Swann to introduce a similar measure in Northern Ireland. The Department of Health has told The Detail that the minister is "very supportive" of the ban and that officials are "continuing work on the way forward" for the north.

There were many prongs to the #BanDisposableVapes campaign: environmental, health, social, economic. Take the environmental prong: five million vapes are thrown away every week in the UK. Strewn across pavements like highlighter pens, vapes create litter in neighbourhoods or end up incinerated in landfill sites. Vapes aren’t ordinary litter either - they contain valuable lithium-ion batteries, and the amount of lithium from these vapes being incinerated each year accounts for enough metal to make batteries for 1,200 electric cars.

While the environmental perils of disposable vapes created a compelling narrative to push for a ban, it wasn’t enough to get everyone on board. This is why perhaps the biggest strength of the campaign was in its ability to use public health as an engine of persuasion. We all care about our health, and vaping isn’t great for our lungs. It can be just as harmful as smoking, containing nicotine and other toxic chemicals.

Rather than simply presenting facts and expecting people to engage, other climate campaigns could do more to strengthen this link between the environment and public health, tapping into our self-interest and concern for the wellbeing of others. For example, retrofitting our homes prevents us from living in cold and damp spaces that can be bad for our lungs (while reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and accessible, greener spaces benefit our physical and mental health (while increasing biodiversity).

Public health is a powerful communication strategy because it’s a universal language. And rather than frame the disposable vapes issue as a solely environmental one, the campaign soon became much more than a story about waste. It became a story that affected human beings. And not just any human beings, but the most precious, valued members of society: our children.

Rosalind Skillen

Rosalind Skillen

The rise in children using disposable vapes in the UK has tripled in the last three years, their colourful packaging making them stand out on supermarket shelves and their disposability making them discreet and easy to use. It was the concern around the health of the future generation that led to the campaign being championed not only by environmentalists but also an extended community of health practitioners, experts, teachers, and community leaders, including Public Health Scotland and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Not only do multiple voices add to the diversity of perspectives needed to understand climate, but they also share the load across individuals and organisations. This, too, is useful for the ‘sustainability’ of a campaign – in the true sense of the word.

Another core element of the #BanDisposableVapes campaign was the specificity of its communications. Spearheaded in Dundee by environmental scientist, Laura Young, from the outset the campaign featured voices of local people and local politicians in local papers and on local radio stations. Disposable vapes were connected to stories about what was happening every day, like ordinary people finding vapes on their dog walks. The issue was covered from local angles with one Scottish paper, The Courier, even interviewing a garage manager who spoke about disposable vapes popping and damaging the tyres of Dundee drivers. It was this very grassroots element that soon led local politicians to get involved and over 90% of Scottish councils to put forward a motion to national government to consider a ban.

Following a ban on the sale of vapes to children in the Republic last year, the Irish government is now considering legislation to ban the sale of disposable vapes altogether. Campaigners advocating for a ban should take note from across the Irish Sea. To touch people, shift public opinion, establish trends, or mainstream ideas, the environment, as a standalone argument, is not enough. If the #BanDisposableVapes campaign had just been about litter, it would never have had the impact that it did.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the success of the British campaign, and many hidden assumptions around climate action to make explicit. People care about the environment but many short-term, immediate concerns, like paying energy bills, often take precedence. Caring for the environment doesn’t always fit in with peoples’ lived reality. This is where climate campaigns get stuck, and they will only unstick when we burst the bubbles we enclose ourselves in, and relate environmental concerns in ways that are accessible and convenient to everyone.

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