The electronic cigarette market in the UK is rapidly growing, bringing in billions of pounds. According to Statista, the UK market for electronic cigarettes and vaporisers is valued at 3.67 billion U.S. dollars. But who really controls this market, and what are the ethical questions we should be asking?
Traditional Companies Takes The Lead
It may seem like a market driven by startups and innovation but make no mistake: the old guard of tobacco companies controls the scene. Brands such as JUUL, Vuse, and Blu are not indie darlings but are owned by tobacco heavyweights Altria, BAT, and Imperial Brands. These companies show a keen ability to adapt, setting the pace for innovations like Philip Morris International’s Heated Tobacco Product (HTP) brand, IQOS.
Sales On The Rise
It’s not just the diversity of products that’s growing. From Elf Bar Vape products, to other popular options, the market continues to grow. Revenue in this sector is also on an upward trend. According to projections, the UK’s e-cigarette market will swell by 384.4 million U.S. dollars between 2023 and 2027, reaching a new peak of 4.3 billion U.S. dollars.
Most Popular Brands
As of a 2021 survey, Blu was the most popular e-cigarette brand in the UK, followed by Vuse and Juul. In 2023, Elf led the market in convenience and independent grocery retailers with sales of over 654 million pounds. Elux was a distant second with 64.7 million pounds sold.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) on behalf of the United Kingdom Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) gives us an intricate picture of the UK vaping market’s evolution over the years. Several points deserve attention.
The vaping industry in the UK has shown resilience and growth, with the number of standalone vape shops increasing by 61% from 2,280 in 2017 to nearly 3,650 in 2020. During the same period, the vaper population in the UK rose by 37%, from 2.7 million in 2017 to 3.7 million in 2021.
Interestingly, Google searches for related products, including vape shop UK, vapes UK and more show increases that suggest rising popularity amongst people for these products.
The EVALI Setback
The vaping industry hit a bump in the road in 2019 due to the EVALI crisis in the United States, which led to over 2,800 hospitalisations and 68 deaths. While the crisis was predominantly American, the effects reached the UK.
There was a slight dip in the number of vapers in the UK in 2019, from 3.2 million to 2.9 million. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) attributed the crisis mainly to harmful chemicals in illegal cannabis vaping products.
The absence of a similar outbreak in the UK is largely credited to stricter regulations.
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Shift in Consumer Preferences
In 2017, 39% of vapers in the UK preferred to buy their products from physical vape shops. This figure dropped to 33% in 2021. At the same time, purchases from newsagents and corner shops increased from 8% to 16%.
The pandemic had a role in this shift. With specialised vaping shops closed due to lockdown measures, consumers were left with no option but to change their buying habits. Interestingly, this seems to have had a lingering effect, as corner shops continue to capture a greater share of the market than before.
A Tool for Quitting or a Gateway to Smoking?
E-cigarettes wear two faces in the UK. One is that of a smoking cessation aid. E-cigarettes have “been marketed as such by big tobacco companies,” allowing smokers to slowly cut down on their nicotine intake. This has helped double the share of British smokers using e-cigarettes to 22% since 2013.
The other face is less friendly. Around 14% of British 16-17-year-olds used electronic cigarettes in 2022. E-cigarettes might encourage young people to start smoking, and this has led the UK to clamp down on vapes marketed as trendy lifestyle gadgets.
So, where does this leave us ethically? On one side, these products are being touted as effective tools for quitting smoking. On the other, they seem to be drawing young people into a potentially harmful habit. The balance hangs on regulation and the big tobacco companies’ choices.
Although the major tobacco companies dominate, other firms also contribute to tech development in this area. Brands like Elf and Elux show that there is room for more competitors, even if they can’t match the sales of tobacco-owned brands.
The UK’s vaping scene is dynamic but fraught with ethical dilemmas. While aiding some in quitting smoking, it may be leading others into it. Regulatory moves will be key to shaping what comes next, but for now, it remains a complex issue with no easy answers.