It has been widely trailed in the media that the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is planning to implement an extra tax on vaping liquids in the budget on Wednesday. This would be a monumental mistake which just adds to a systematic dismantling of the government’s previous world-leading approach to harm reduction and will cost lives.

The New Nicotine Alliance is disappointed that the government is abandoning opportunity after opportunity to increase the chances of achieving its own Smoke-free 2030 goal. In just a few short weeks, the UK government has undone its former position as a world-leader in reducing the prevalence of smoking.

Ignoring expert public health organisations such as Action on Smoking and Health, the National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training, Fresh-Balance and many others who were acutely aware of the unintended consequences of a ban on single use vapes, the government has committed to removing them which can only deter people who smoke from switching to products which could save their lives.

It is also intending to restrict many flavours which can help people quit smoking, enforce plain packaging, and severely reduce the visibility of life-saving products.

In the terms of the proposed generational ban on tobacco products, it has included heat-not-burn products which are far less harmful than combustible tobacco – according to the government commissioned Committee on Toxicology report - and have led to dramatic declines in smoking prevalence in countries where they are widely available and promoted to people who smoke as an alternative.

It is also regrettable that the government has not taken the opportunity of Brexit to legalise snus which has led to Sweden being close to achieving the EU’s target of less than 5% smoking prevalence by 2040 nearly two decades early. Worse still, there are signs that the UK is now set to apply damaging restrictions to nicotine pouches which threaten to neuter their potential to attract people who use lethal combustible tobacco to a far safer alternative with comparably negligible harm.

These mistakes are serious enough, but the suggested vape tax would be the most pernicious of all.  

Vaping products compete with combustible tobacco, so it is an economic certainty that any action which deters adult smokers from switching to a reduced risk alternative will be an increase in smoking. It will also increase the already high level of illicit trade in vapes which has been assessed currently to be around half of all sales in the UK.

Complying with government duties is not a simple matter, either. It will be a new and excessive burden on small independent companies to learn tax bureaucracy compliance, one which could put many out of business altogether, whereas the tobacco industry is well-versed on handling taxes over many decades.

Michael Pesko, probably the world's most accomplished economist when it comes to applying quasi-experimental techniques to e-cigarette policies, strongly recommended against taxes on vaping products in his submission the Department of Health and Social Care consultation. The government would be wise to take his advice seriously.

The government – and media reporting on the vape tax proposal – should ask questions on the inevitable unintended consequences of such a policy.

How much extra smoking do you expect to arise from taxing vapes? To what extent will this slow progress towards and imperil the Smokefree 2030 goal?

How much extra illicit trade in vapes do you expect to arise on top of the high level we already have?

How much extra tax bureaucracy cost do you expect to create compared to the tax revenue raised? 

Big tobacco companies are set up for tax bureaucracy, what extent do these taxes penalise small vape businesses and support Big Tobacco?

If the rumours of a vape liquid tax are true, the government would be fighting itself. It has been recently reported that 400,000 vaping products – the first of one million promised by the government last year - will be handed out free of charge under the Swap to Stop campaign. The Chancellor taxing them on the pretext that they are harmful will surely cancel out much of that investment by sending mixed messages.

The government’s own consultation document in October stated that “swapping to vaping is already helping 50,000 to 70,000 smokers in England quit each year - saving thousands of lives.” This tax will be a significant obstruction to that progress.

Just last week, a long-running Cancer Research UK funded study found that there were “substantial misperceptions about the harms of vaping compared with smoking” and emphasised “the need to clearly communicate the risks so that adults who smoke can make informed choices about the nicotine products they use.” The rumoured tax on vaping liquids will only add to these damaging misperceptions.

The NNA hopes that wise voices are advising the Chancellor of the extremely damaging consequences that a tax on vaping liquid will have for public health, and that he draws back from announcing the proposal on Wednesday. Thousands of lives depend on it.