Disposable electronic cigarettes, popular with teenagers and very polluting, soon to be banned in France?

The deputies will vote on a text which could, for once, be unanimous in the Hemicycle

Disposable electronic cigarettes, popular with teenagers and very polluting, soon to be banned in France?

The deputies will vote on a text which could, for once, be unanimous in the Hemicycle. Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 December, they examine the transpartisan bill proposed by deputies Francesca Pasquini (Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, Hauts-de-Seine) and Michel Lauzzana (Renaissance, Lot-et-Garonne) which aims to prohibit single-use electronic vaping devices, also called “puffs.”

Appearing on the French market in 2021, these disposable, easy-to-use, pre-filled and non-rechargeable electronic cigarettes are accused of contributing to the popularity of vaping among young people. Using bright colors and sweet flavors (cola, iced tea, cotton candy, milkshake, etc.), the marketing of these new “vape” products targets adolescents, even though their sale to minors remains prohibited.

For a modest price (5 to 15 euros), the puffs promise a lifespan of 500 to 800 puffs (compared to fifteen for a classic cigarette). Their nicotine levels vary widely, from 0 milligrams per milliliter (mg/ml) to 20 mg/ml, which can be high enough to be highly addictive.

A potential gateway to tobacco

Thanks to price increases and public health campaigns, tobacco sales have been declining for fifteen years in France, going from 65,728 tonnes in 2006 to 40,314 tonnes in 2022.

According to the Escapad survey, conducted regularly by the French Observatory of Drugs and Addictive Tendencies (OFDT), tobacco use among 17-year-olds has fallen sharply: two-thirds had tried cigarettes in 2014, compared to fewer by half in 2022. Over the same period, the number of daily smokers has been halved.

But alongside this decline in smoking, the use of electronic cigarettes has exploded in recent years, particularly among adolescents. In 2022, vaping exceeded levels of experimentation and recent tobacco use at age 17 for the first time. The number of daily vapers has even tripled in five years in this age group.

“The diversification of the offer, the great accessibility and exposure, particularly via social networks, are elements explaining the greater popularity of vaping” among young people, notes Marc-Antoine Douchet, research fellow at the 'OFDT and author of the latest report on smoking and stopping smoking. The organization does not have specific figures for puff, but Mr. Douchet recognizes that “marketing strategies targeting younger people are likely to increase the occurrence of addictive behavior”.

According to a survey conducted in September by BVA for the Alliance Against Tobacco among a representative sample of 1,000 adolescents aged 13 to 16, 15% of teens said they had already used a puff and, among them, 47% said have started their initiation to nicotine through this device.

Despite the ban on the sale of vaping products, including those without nicotine, to minors, more than a quarter of respondents (28%) thought it was easy to obtain puffs, and 34% incorrectly thought they were accessible to those under 18 years of age.

The electronic cigarette can be presented as a tool to help smokers quit, but this is not the case with puffs, assures Marc-Antoine Douchet: these disposable e-cigarettes “really constitute a gateway risk towards nicotine, especially since qualitative surveys show that their addictive potential is not necessarily perceived”. This renormalization of smoking could undermine the government's goal of a tobacco-free generation in 2032.

An “environmental aberration”

These new cigarettes also pose significant environmental problems. These devices contain a lithium battery, copper conductors or LEDs and should not be disposed of with household waste but in collection points provided for waste electrical and electronic equipment. However, very few traders and tobacconists encourage the recycling of puffs, and their collection remains minimal.

According to a survey carried out this year in the United Kingdom by the NGO Material Focus, five million puffs are thrown away every week, a figure which has almost quadrupled in one year, and only 17% of users recycled them. Across the Channel alone, the lithium contained in the 360 ​​million puffs purchased each year could power nearly 5,000 electric vehicles, assures the NGO, which campaigns for the recycling and reuse of electrical devices.

“Even if they were properly sorted, these products with a welded lithium battery remain almost impossible for professionals to recycle,” adds MP Francesca Pasquini, rapporteur of the French bill. A long and careful chain would be necessary to separate all the elements contained in this small object. “These products are an environmental aberration that uses natural resources in the worst possible way,” denounces the elected environmentalist.

Uncertainty over the European validation of the ban

The environmental group in the National Assembly tabled its bill in November 2022 aimed at banning single-use e-cigarettes. The text has become transpartisan: it is supported by 162 deputies from eight political groups.

The ban does not seem to be debated – even the Confederation of tobacconists is in favor of it – and should easily obtain a majority in Parliament. Debate at the Palais-Bourbon on December 4 and 5, it is expected in the Senate during the first half of 2024, for entry into force before the next school year. The government has already included this ban in the flagship measures of its national tobacco control program presented on November 28.

However, a major uncertainty persists: the opinion of the European Commission. The government will have to notify it of this proposed ban, so that it can verify its compliance with Community law. Once notification is received, the Commission has six months to authorize or reject the ban on puffs.

And this is not a given, believes Vincent Couronne, specialist in European law and director of the Les Surligneurs collective: “There is a 2014 directive on tobacco products in the European Union, and this does not allow States to take exceptional measures only in certain specific cases. » Article 54 provides that “in order to take into account possible future developments in the market” Member States may prohibit a category of tobacco products due to a situation specific to their country, provided that this ban is justified by “the need to protect public health, taking into account the high level of protection ensured by this Directive”.

“France must succeed in demonstrating that these puffs pose a particular public health problem in our country, for example addiction among young people,” explains Vincent Couronne. But there are currently no scientific studies or precise figures on the consumption of these disposable e-cigarettes in France. The Commission is still looking at whether the ban is proportionate, so it risks asking why, for example, France does not favor regulation on the packaging of these cigarettes, as for plain packets. »

Belgium, which also wants to ban disposable electronic cigarettes, experienced this this summer. The Commission, which received a first notification from the Belgian government in December 2022, asked it to review its copy in order to demonstrate the country-specific problem that would justify a ban. Above all, the European executive considered that the file could only be based on questions of public health, refusing environmental arguments. A new file was referred to the Commission on September 19. The response, expected by March 2024, will serve as a test for France.