Doctors call for e-cigarettes to be made less appealing to children

Science Editor Deborah Cohen explains that the rise of vaping has revealed a cloud of confusion over how we regulate addictive brands

Ewan Fisher was an aspiring boxer. But his future now looks very different. At 16 he switched to vaping from cigarettes to improve his boxing. But five months later he experienced a catastrophic reaction in his lungs. The cause, his doctors say, was vaping.

He was rushed to hospital and eventually connected to an artificial lung to keep him alive after his own lungs failed and he could not breathe. “I could have lost my life. I only had a 20 percent chance of living,” Ewan says. “They said that my lungs look like an 80-year-old who's been smoking all their life.”

Evan describes the doctors' reaction when he was rushed to hospital

Five years on he still struggles with his breathing .

“I've lost my boxing career and I've lost a lot of the things that I used to do in life,” he says. What happened to Ewan is very rare. The NHS advises smokers that nicotine-containing e-cigarettes are much less harmful than tobacco, so they can be used to help quit. But taking vaping up from scratch is not advised. And there are strict rules prohibiting the selling and marketing of e-cigarettes to under 18s.

It’s because of this and what happened to Ewan that a recent sponsorship deal struck between Blackburn Rovers and e-cigarette company Totally Wicked has some doctors worried.

ITV News caught up with one of the doctors, Blackburn Rovers fan Prof Stephen Fowler, a respiratory consultant, on his way to a match.

It’s the nature of the branding and the logo and its appeal to under 18s that have caught their eye.

“They’ve got a red devil. He looks kind of evil. He looks kind of cool. They've got this wacky writing, the name of the company totally wicked,” Prof Fowler says.

Professor Stephen Fowler, a football fan and doctor, expresses concerns about vaping

“As a lifelong Rovers fan, it's really disappointing to find out that they are now sponsored by a vaping firm and it’s branded on the front of their shirts. I've got big concerns about the effects of vaping on kids,” he says.

Prof Fowler cites recent evidence that exposure to vape e-cigarettes is associated with more frequent coughs and breathlessness in children. “One of the big problems is we have absolutely no idea what the long-term consequences of putting this stuff into your lungs every single day is going to be,” he adds.

Nationally vaping in under 18s isn’t rapidly taking off - although in 2021 YouGov research suggested more than 200,000 11-17 year olds who had never smoked tried vaping.

And research shared exclusively with ITV News by research company Mustard for Trading Standards North West show that about two thirds of 14 to 17-year-olds in Blackburn are trying vaping before real cigarettes. These figures predate the sponsorship deal.

Neither Blackburn Rovers or Totally Wicked have broken any rules. They say they’re helping hundreds of thousands of smokers to choose a safer alternative and they are not targeting children.

“We don't sell to that market [under 18s], but we do know that our brand appeals to adult smokers. Our target market is adult smokers. We want to give them a product that is 95% safer than smoking,” Liam Humberstone, technical director of Totally Wicked said.

'Our target market is adults', Totally Wicked told ITV News

And these deals bring in money. Today announcing his own deal with eCommerce firm Huboo across five teams, Steve Lansdown owner of Bristol City and founder of Bristol Sport said these are “difficult decisions for any football club”.

“On the one hand we want to do the right thing by our communities and supporter base, but on the other we need to get the revenues in to support business,” he says.

But there are questions about whether this should come from vaping firms. Linda Bauld, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, says while she thinks vaping is far less harmful than smoking tobacco, she’s not convinced sport sponsorship is the best vehicle to drive that message. “I really don't think you can use sport sponsorship as a mechanism to only communicate to older people,” she says adding: “And clearly, if you've got a fun, playful logo, that's a little bit different. Of course, it's going to be something that young people will notice.” Research from anti-tobacco smoking charity, Ash, shows e-cigarette branding using cartoon characters and garish colours is attractive to under 18s - yet it doesn’t have the same influence on adults.

This has prompted questions in Holyrood and Westminster about how these logos and branding are regulated.

The sponsorship deal struck between Blackburn Rovers and e-cigarette company Totally Wicked has some doctors worried.

“I don’t think this is an area that has been closely looked at,” Prof Bauld says. “I think logos is a bit of an area where it’s very unclear whether anybody is making a decision whether a particular logo will appeal to children or not.” But Totally Wicked’s Liam Humberstone says he doesn’t think the oversight of the branding and the logos is actually the key here in making products less acceptable to young people.

“We do need much much better enforcement in ensuring that these products aren't available to those under 18 year old,” he says.

While vaping may have a vital public health role to help people stop smoking. But its rise has revealed a cloud of confusion over how we regulate addictive brands. The challenge now - say experts - is to clearing that up.