Although electronic vapour products (EVPs) were developed as harm reduction tools to assist adult smokers to reduce or quit smoking, the appeal these products hold for under-18s continues to be a hot topic in the media.
Across the globe, countries such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia have promulgated regulations that restrict the sale of these products to minors. And now, it’s time for South Africa to follow suit.
“In the UK, for example, it is illegal not only for retailers to sell e-liquids containing nicotine to those under the age of 18, but it is also illegal for any adult to purchase these for a minor. Vendors found breaking these laws are hit with fines of up to £2,500 [R51,325],” says Asanda Gcoyi, CEO of the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA).
In South Africa, VPASA has taken the lead by advising its members and the sector as a whole to begin self-regulating.
“We insist that all VPASA members sign a code of conduct which, among other things, restricts the sale of vaping products to anyone under the age of 18.”
Although more than 65% of the South African vaping industry already holds VPASA membership and are thus signatories to its Code of Conduct, Gcoyi believes a more proactive approach is required across the entire industry. As a result, this March, VPASA launched its Youth Access Prevention campaign aimed at retailers of vaping products, and to assist in raising awareness of EVPs amongst parents.
“Any responsible parent will educate their children about sex, alcohol and smoking cigarettes,” says Gcoyi, who is a parent herself. “I don’t know why we are not educating them about vaping products as well. Parents don’t seem to see the need to talk about these, perhaps because they do not understand the purpose of EVPs themselves.”
For this reason, she believes the onus rests on the industry to play this critical education role.
As part of its campaign, which will run through April, VPASA has produced an industry guide that emphasises the importance of restricting sales of nicotine-containing products to youth. This guide is based on restrictions already in place in the UK, and advises all EVP retailers to ensure their staff are appropriately trained – not only in the products they sell, but in restricting sales to minors through age verification.
“It’s often awkward for retail staff to ask customers for proof of age, but the guide defines four clear ways in which to do this effectively,” explains Gcoyi.
The first of these is early intervention, which occurs when youth enter a store and it is suspected they will attempt to buy vaping products. To have appropriate signage on display that indicates sales to minors will not be allowed will often deter attempts to purchase. Should this prove insufficient, staff should then also be able to offer clear explanations when asking for physical proof of age, making potential customers aware that this is best practice standards and not personal. Likewise, staff must remain calm, polite and professional throughout the interaction. If a situation escalates during age verification efforts, they should remove themselves from the situation and ask management for assistance.
This training is essential, for example, for conversations that retail staff may have with parents who shop with minors, explains Gcoyi. “There are parents who will say, ‘I’d rather have my child vape than smoke.’ And in those instances, shop owners need to protect themselves. You can’t control what a parent does with their child behind closed doors, but you definitely have a say in terms of access in your shop. This is really important.”
In addition, retailers participating in the campaign are also asked to keep a register of refusals of sales to minors. “We’ve already sent all the paperwork about our campaign to our members – the guidelines, stickers, in-store posters and the register,” adds Gcoyi.
Equally important are online retailers who are advised to implement age gates on their websites. These blur images until age verification has been completed. This also requires age disclaimers and declarations to be in place on the site, confirming that purchasers are older than 18. But age restriction goes beyond just a website. “We encourage online retailers to employ the services of courier companies who are prepared to do age verification on delivery, and who will refuse delivery if they suspect a purchaser is underage.”
Says Gcoyi: “This is about the South African vaping industry being responsible industry players who are prepared to self-regulate. If the legislators wish to take what we’re doing as a model for future regulations, they are more than welcome to do so.
“However, this is first and foremost about the industry setting a responsible benchmark for itself in line with international best practice to ensure, of its own accord, that vaping products stay out of the hands of children.” DM