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30 January 2024

E-cigarettes: in considering human behaviour, we forgot corporate behaviour

Michael Sanders

Did we miss how businesses would act when we nudged the public away from cigarettes?

black and white image of man exhaling thick white vape smoke

The government has announced this week that it will be moving to ban single-use vapes (e-cigarettes), on the grounds that they are addictive and pose a risk to the health of young people, at whom they are aggressively marketed. At the same time, the government is bringing forward legislation to increase the minimum age at which you can legally buy cigarettes by one year every 12 months, effectively meaning that today’s young people will never legally be able to buy cigarettes.

The government’s action to ban cigarettes for all those who can’t already legally smoke is a decisive move to prevent people accessing one of the more dangerous substances that human beings routinely and legally ingest. It is also loosely bipartisan, with the same policy having been initiated in New Zealand by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour party, only to be cancelled following last year’s election victory by the National party, who are the leading centre-right party in the country.

These changes must prompt reflection from behavioural scientists who seek to influence government policy, and from there to change the behaviour of individual citizens. E-cigarettes were held up as a solution to the ongoing problem of people choosing to smoke cigarettes, and the fact that cigarettes are as addictive as they are harmful. Given that e-cigarettes would need to sold in a buy-one-get-one-free deal with handguns in order to be as dangerous as analogue cigarettes, they offered the prospect of weaning people off of those, and onto a less harmful alternative. This, combined with marketing bans, plain packaging and so on for cigarettes would reduce demand and help us continue along the path to a smoke-free society.

The decision to ban single use e-cigarettes reflects the myopia in our advocacy for them from a behavioural standpoint. Marketing bans would reduce initial uptake of cigarettes, and by providing a close substitute (an e-cigarette still contains nicotine and mirrors the physical sensation of smoking), we could get those already addicted to cut down and quit. This argument is legitimate and reasonable, and was used to justify the light-touch regulation of e-cigarettes despite opposition from many in the medical profession.

What we (or at the very least, I), failed to consider was not the effects on human behaviour, but on corporate behaviour. In particular, loosely regulated e-cigarette companies had only limited profit opportunities if they existed solely to help existing smokers quit. As a result, they, like their predecessors in the cigarette and alcohol markets, aggressively targeted a young audience with attractive products in vibrant colours and flavours targeted at the younger palate (I am unconvinced anyone over 21 has wilfully bought a Blue Raspberry flavoured vape), as well as creating cheaper, disposable products that might appeal to people on low incomes (a group that usually includes children).

This behaviour was in some senses easy to predict – it is what we had seen before from almost anyone who seeks to profit from a product that is incredibly addictive, and where you maximise value by getting people addicted young, when they have the longest possible time of being addicted ahead of them, and they are not fully mature consumers. Despite this predictability, we failed to implement the sound behavioural strategies (like plain packaging and fines for marketing at children), that the evidence already told us would probably help avoid addiction.

This failure is a reminder, if any were needed, that those of us who seek to nudge should look to our own biases, and our earnest belief that this time things will go better – the triumph of optimism bias over experience.

Michael Sanders is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Experimental Government Team at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.

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Professor of Public Policy

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