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By Ben King
Business reporter, BBC News

Banning disposable vapes will not be “effective”, the boss of the UK’s largest tobacco firm has told the BBC.

Tadeu Marroco, chief executive of British American Tobacco (BAT), also said raising the smoking age would have “non-intended consequences”.

The government plans to outlaw disposable vapes next April as part of the “biggest public health measure in decades”.

BAT is the UK’s third-largest vape seller.

Sales of disposable vapes – which give a few hundred puffs of nicotine-containing liquid before being thrown away – have skyrocketed in recent years in Britain. It is estimated hundreds of millions are now sold every year, many of them illegal.

Last week the government published the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, which will ban the sale of tobacco to anyone born from 2009 onwards, and bring in on-the-spot fines for retailers caught selling to under-18s.

But Mr Marroco said such a ban had not worked overseas. “In other countries this hasn’t been effective,” he said. “In Australia they have banned the whole category, and the amount teenagers use in the illegal market is very high. The same is happening in Brazil,” he added.

However, campaigners believe otherwise. Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said, “The ban on disposables can be made to work but it requires tough enforcement not just in shops but at the border to prevent illegal imports.”

As one of the biggest publicly-listed companies in the UK, BAT is third in the disposable vape sector behind market leaders Chinese firms SKE and iMiracle, which make Elfbar and Lost Mary.

Mr Marroco agreed that tougher penalties are needed. He said proposed on-the-spot fines of £100 were “not enough”, calling the French proposal of €100,000 (£86,000)”a proper fine”.

But he warned of “non-intended consequences” for retail and law enforcement from the government’s plan to keep raising the smoking age every year, so that people born in or after 2009 will never legally be able to buy tobacco.

“We need to tackle first of all the underage vapour use, we need to have a retail licence as we do for alcohol,” he said, and repeated the company’s calls for a ban on flavours which might appeal to children such as sweets and soft drinks.

“There is no doubt that the UK is being looked at by a number of countries around the world. That’s why it’s so important to get it right here,” he said.

Asked whether BAT was only advocating policies which aligned with its commercial interests, the CEO stated: “This is an industry which has been under a lot of scrutiny on how we reduce the health impact of our products… this is the first time that we have the technology to do that.”

Mr Marroco defended the company’s use of sponsorship as “predominantly for adults” – it hands out free samples to promote its oral nicotine pouch products. “We are very cautious about that,” he said.

BAT’s Velo nicotine pouch brand sponsors the McLaren Formula One team – driving at Silverstone in July 2023

BAT also sponsors Formula One but Mr Marroco said the company’s controls were “robust enough” to stop teenagers being encouraged to buy nicotine pouches.

However, he admitted that the law did not prevent them purchasing them. “At the moment if you’re 14 you can buy nicotine pouches [legally in the UK]. This needs to stop,” he said.

The Tobacco and Vapes Bill will give government powers to control sales of nicotine pouches.

BAT has had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for violating international sanctions in North Korea and breaking competition rules in Nigeria.

Mr Marroco would not comment if that made the company a trusted voice on vape regulation, but said: “We have exhaustively spoken about those problems in the past, and these stay there in the past…BAT today has the opportunity now that we didn’t have in the past to reduce the risk of our products.”

Ms Arnott from ASH said: “We’ve heard it all before that BAT has turned a new leaf and is now on the side of the angels.

“But BAT is still promoting tobacco cigarettes…and that’s still where they’re making most of their profits. That’s why they don’t like the government’s age of sale legislation, not because it won’t work but because it will.”

In a statement the Department for Health and Social Care said smoking was responsible for around 80,000 deaths a year in the UK, costing £17bn a year.

“The Tobacco and Vapes Bill is the biggest public health measure in decades, protecting future generations from the harms of smoking.

“It will save thousands of lives and billions of pounds for our NHS, freeing up new resource which can be spent to improve outcomes across the UK.”

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