The vaping category has more than doubled in size and added almost £1bn in extra sales this year, as smokers abandoned tobacco in their droves.
Now worth £1.7bn, vaping is 2023’s fastest growing category in The Top Products Survey, adding £897.5m in sales and shifting 155.2 million extra packs through multiples, convenience stores and independents [Nielsen IQ, y/e 9 September 2023]. Vaping was last year’s biggest-growing grocery category, too.
This year’s growth has come despite the category’s leading brands being embroiled in a compliance scandal earlier this year that saw products pulled from shelves in supermarkets. And disposable vapes – which have driven most of the gains – have also attracted the scorn of campaigners, big tobacco and even PM Rishi Sunak.
While ElfBar remains the UK’s bestselling vape brand, sister brand Lost Mary rocketed up the ranking to second place, adding £310.7m in extra sales. Rival Chinese brand SKE grew £203m to become the third biggest brand. But sales of Geek Bar fell by £39.5m.
“We are not surprised the UK vape industry has continued to thrive as it shows the extraordinary demand by adult smokers for this highly popular alternative to combustible cigarettes,” said UK Vaping Industry Association director general John Dunne.
“Continued consumer growth shows there is a strong demand for a product that can transform lives for the better, create jobs, boost local spending, contribute to the exchequer and save the NHS millions in treating smoking-related illnesses,” he added.
Traditional tobacco’s demise
Five years ago the vaping category was worth £184m. Since then vaping’s steal of ‘share of lung’ has seen combustible tobacco lose over £1bn in value. This year cigarettes and cigars have lost £849.1m, while rolling tobacco is down £393.1m in value – the two biggest absolute category losses of the year. Volumes were down 14.9% and 18.7% respectively. And the tobacco category’s demise is accelerating. In 2018, The Grocer reported a £364.5m fall in sales.
The government has announced plans to raise the age of sale so it will never be legal to sell tobacco to anyone born after the start of 2009, which, if legislation is passed, could hit sales further still.
Regulators vs marketers
But the rise of vaping is not being ignored by regulators either. After a consultation this year, restrictions on flavour descriptions, sale displays and packaging seem likely. And brands are getting ahead of potential rule changes.
ElfBar is already revising flavour names and calling for “a full licensing regime – and crafting a framework akin to the one for alcohol”.
88vape has ditched bright colours on devices and added plain packs.
And Smoore – the world’s biggest vape tech manufacturer – has “vowed not to work with brands who use flavour names, packaging or product designs which are attractive to children”.
Whether there will be a total ban on disposable devices is harder to call. Sunak said he didn’t “want my kids seduced by any of these things”.
The case to keep them wasn’t helped earlier this year when several ElfBar, Lost Mary, SKE Crystal and other devices were found to contain 50% more than the legal liquid nicotine limit in independent tests.
The global communications chief for ElfBar and Lost Mary brands Jacques Xiang Li told The Grocer that: “It made us really look at ourselves and think what kind of company, what kind of brand do we want to have?”
Scandals and compliance
But some in the industry have suggested the scandal served as a huge advert for the brands affected, letting consumers know they were getting more for their money. Xiang Li considers soaring sales amid the scandal “a paradox”. More recent testing has found the brands to be compliant.
SKE brand manager Joanna Luo told The Grocer that disposables are “misunderstood”.
“They’ve been proven to be the very best way to get adult smokers off cigarettes but this gets totally overlooked by many as the focus has shifted from the core reason this category was invented,” she said.
“There are many reasons for this but we feel that the overwhelmingly negative coverage of vaping in general, and disposables in particular, in the mainstream media has clouded opinion and led to a huge amount of misunderstanding about their role in tobacco harm reduction.”
The sector fears any ban would simply push sales to the unregulated black market – already a problem for the category - which has even fewer scruples regards selling to children. And risk a reversal of falling smoking rates.
Added Dunne: “With 250 people dying every day from smoking, and the government committed to getting its 2030 smokefree target back on track, banning an entire class of entry-level products really does not make any sense.”