Removing colourful packaging ‘reduces appeal of vaping for teenagers’

A man exhaling whilst using a vaping product (File picture)  (PA Archive)
A man exhaling whilst using a vaping product (File picture) (PA Archive)

Removing eye-catching packaging could help to reduce vaping among teenagers, a study has found.

Researchers from King’s College London (KCL) found that standardising vape packaging, by removing brand imagery, was associated with a decrease in interest for teenagers without lessening the appeal of vaping to adults who smoke.

The proportion of children aged 11 to 17 currently vaping jumped from 4 per cent in 2020 to 7 per cent in 2022, according to a poll by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). Health experts have warned that teenagers are being targeted by e-cigarette companies using colourful packaging and fruity flavours, with a particular rise in the popularity of £5 disposable vapes.

For the study, over 2,400 teenagers aged 11-18 and 12,000 adults aged 18 and over were randomly assigned to view a set of three vape products with different types of packaging. These included fully branded packs, standardised white packaging with a brand name and standardised green packaging with a brand name.

Participants were then asked which of the products people of their age would be most interested in trying.

Researchers found that those in the teenage group were more likely to report that their peers would have no interest in vapes marketed with standardised packaging.

This was in contrast to the adult group, whose interest was not decreased by standardised packaging.

Dr Katherine East, the study’s senior author from KCL, said: “Vapes, and nicotine products in general, should be available to adults who smoke to help them to stop smoking but should not be used by non-smokers under the age of 18.

“Some current e-cigarette packaging has eye catching and enticing designs. Our study found that removing brand imagery from packs reduced appeal of vapes to teenagers without reducing appeal to adults.

“This is a vital difference, as it means that vapes can still appeal to adults as a tool to stop smoking, particularly because our previous research has established vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking.”

The NHS says that, while the long-term effects of vaping remain unknown, it is much less harmful than smoking cigarettes. However, vaping still carries a health risk.

Eve Taylor, the study’s first author from KCL, said the “ideal situation is to ensure teenagers aren’t tempted to take up vaping in the first place” without deterring adults from using vapes to stop smoking.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty last month attacked the “appalling” marketing of vapes to children – claiming it was clear some products are intended to appeal to underage kids. It is illegal to sell vapes to children aged under 18.

The research was conducted by academics at KCL’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) and ASH. It is the first major study of its kind looking at how vaping packaging appeals to youngsters.

Dr Sarah Jackson, Principal Research Fellow at the UCL Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, said: “These findings indicate that requiring e-cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging could help to reduce their appeal to youth (and potentially uptake of vaping) without any adverse effect on appeal among adults.

“In the UK, plain packaging requirements for cigarettes and hand-rolled tobacco have been in place since 2017 – and data suggest smoking rates have fallen as a result – so there’s precedent for this type of intervention.

“But while cigarettes look very similar across brands (meaning packaging is the main opportunity for branding), e-cigarette devices come in a wide range of shapes and colours which may still appeal to young people once the packaging is removed. So while standardising packaging may go some way towards reduce e-cigarettes’ appeal to youth, it’s likely to only be part of the puzzle.”