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Why Is E-Liquid Classed As A Tobacco Product?

Why Is E-Liquid Classed As A Tobacco Product?

John Boughey |

Last fact-checked 3 June 2021 | Report a factual error on this article

For a little over half a decade, vaping laws have been grouped with smoking laws under the UK’s Tobacco and Related Products Regulations (TRPR). These rules affect how e-cigarettes and e-liquids are sold, where we can vape and how much e-liquid we can buy in one go. 

Many vapers feel that being lumped in with smokers is unfair, and some don’t even see how e-liquid could be considered a tobacco product at all. There is also some tension surrounding the fact that the UK’s TRPR law is directly linked to the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive, or TPD (explained here).

While there are certainly aspects of the TRPR that we would rewrite if we could, the fact is that quite a lot of the e-liquid vaped in the UK is a tobacco product. There are also a few benefits to grouping vaping and smoking together under one single law. 

In this guide, we’ll explain why e-liquid is currently classified as a tobacco product under UK and EU Law. We’ll also share our thoughts on when — and how — the UK rulebook might change in future. 

E-Liquid Containing Nicotine Is A Tobacco Product

There is no tobacco in shortfill e-liquid, which is a simple blend of VG, PG and flavourings and contains no nicotine (see our guide to VG and PG here). Nic salts and booster shots, on the other hand, contain nicotine that has almost always been extracted directly from the tobacco plant. As a result, nicotine-infused e-liquid is almost always a tobacco product. 

I say ‘almost always’, because nicotine can technically be synthesised in a laboratory. Synthesising nicotine involves a complex and costly process — it’s not really a commercially-viable option here in the UK. The simplest and most cost-effective way to make nicotine is to extract it from tobacco leaves, which is why most nicotine boosters and nicotine salts on the market are still technically ‘tobacco products’. 

Why E-Liquid Belongs To The TRPR Law

Nicotine may be a tobacco product, but e-liquid, in its purest form, is not. So why was all e-liquid and vaping equipment included in the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016? One simple answer is that it probably made sense at the time. 

Ten short years ago, vaping was almost completely unheard of. Our industry was in desperate need of some sort of regulation, and for the politicians in charge of signing off on this law (based on what was known about vaping at the time and the requirement to agree the law centrally as part of the EU), it probably made sense to just go ahead and get something in place. 

The TRPR law came into force on 20 May 2016. Incidentally, the Brexit referendum vote followed five short weeks later. The government has since confirmed that vaping laws will be reviewed as part of a post-Brexit review (see page 27 of the Government’s “Smokefree Generation” plans). The coronavirus emergency has changed the priority list of just about everyone in Westminster, so we may have a while to wait before we see any changes to the TRPR. 

The Problems With TRPR

There are problems with lumping e-liquids in with tobacco products under TRPR. Some of the problems we’ve seen with the way that e-liquids are controlled (and not controlled) are:

Volumes are limited. Vape devices can’t carry more than 2ml of e-liquid, and nicotine-infused e-liquid can’t be sold in bottles larger than 10ml. This is annoying for a lot of committed vapers. Not only is it inconvenient (you need to refill frequently), but it severely limits the number of squonk mods on the UK market. 

Spillages are more likely. By forcing vapers to mix their own shortfill at home, the risk of spillages is increased, as is  the risk of nicotine making contact with an individual’s bare skin.  We would much rather see a situation where someone could buy a larger volume of nicotine-infused e-liquid that they didn’t have to mix themselves. The fewer opportunities there are for nicotine spillages, the safer it is for vapers. 

Battery safety is not covered. E-cigarettes use high-performance batteries and heating elements. Most box mods come with safety chips to keep vapers safe, but there is a real risk of fire if inexperienced vapers attempt to ‘jailbreak’ the safety features on their box mod or buy unregulated products. Arguably, it would be better if e-cigarettes had their own specific set of regulations that could cover nicotine consumption and electronic safety.

Vaping is a popular NRT device. This is probably our biggest issue with the TRPR regulations. To our minds, vaping is one of the best Nicotine Replacement Therapy systems ever invented. It closely mimics a cigarette and it delivers a dose of nicotine — it was literally invented to help people quit smoking. Yet by filing cigarettes and e-cigarettes under the same law, the chances of vaping becoming an NHS-endorsed smoking cessation tool — something that people can get on prescription if they need to — are limited. There’s hope for change here — the University of East Anglia are trialling e-cigarettes in a limited number of NHS hospitals (news story here), so we’re hopeful that this will change in the future. 

Will The Law Change?

Westminster is aware of the limitations of the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016. In fact, Sir Christopher Chope, MP for Christchurch, has put forward a Private Member’s Bill calling for the complete removal of e-cigarettes from the TRPR.  Private Member’s Bills very rarely become law, however, and the normal business of parliament has been delayed by Brexit and the Coronavirus emergency. 

We think that the TRPR will eventually change, but we don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was meant to review the law by 20 May 2021. A quick scan of his department’s official announcements (listed here) shows that he has  — rightly — been focused on the coronavirus pandemic. All the same, we’re keeping an eye on the TRPR review page (link here), and watching for future announcements. 

Stay safe and happy vaping!

John Boughey

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