September 15, 2023 - 4:00pm

As I entered my teenage years I began to struggle with an embarrassing addiction. Things got so bad it even started to strain my physical health, and eventually I would require professional help. I should clarify that my juvenile dependency was not drugs or alcohol, but the comparatively innocuous computer game Championship Manager. 

All-day binges had resulted, an optician told me, in the potential development of a lazy eye. This was likely the result of having measles as a baby, but the marathon gaming sessions had brought it to the fore. I would now have to wear a corrective eye patch. 

Looking back, it’s hard not to feel wistful about such harmless temptations (the patch did the trick after a few months). Without the Internet or smartphones, there was no cyber-bullying or social media to impart bizarre wellness advice or disseminate body dysmorphia. There was no online pornography, with such material requiring intrepid exertion back then. 

One struggles not to feel sad for today’s young by comparison. Besides their poor economic prospects and difficulty in getting onto the housing ladder, they have to contend with a society which doesn’t just tolerate addiction but often seems to validate it. Betting companies adorn the shirts of the football teams they support, and our febrile world of “joyless urgency” — as Marilynne Robinson labelled it — driven by the attention economy is all they’ve known. 

I was glad, then, to see that Rishi Sunak is set to ban single-use vapes, as well as flavours designed to appeal to children. Predictably, vaping companies responded that they would never dream of targeting children for their products. After all, it is illegal for anyone younger than 18 to buy e-cigarettes. Apparently flavours like “rainbow candy” and “raspberry slush” are aimed at carpet-fitters, retired bank clerks and provincial headmistresses.

While the Government has tried to make cigarettes supremely unappealing in recent years — whether that’s through higher taxes, or pictures on the front of packets showing various organs in a state of tobacco-ridden decay — vaping has been subject to a lighter touch. Understandably, the authorities have viewed it as a means of rendering tobacco smoking obsolete.

Yet that strategy has started to reveal major downsides — especially among the young. The number of 15-year-old girls who vape more than doubled from 10% in 2018 to 21% three years later. Meanwhile, the number of children who tried vaping for the first time increased by 50% over the last year. None of this is legal, and the Prime Minister has rightly concluded that marketing vapes as no worse than Starburst or Haribo isn’t helping. 

Central to the rise of vaping among children are disposable e-cigarettes. Just 7.7% of children regularly smoking vapes used them in 2021, a figure which rose to 69% in 2023. Besides the health implications and the increased likelihood of encouraging a cigarette habit, disposable vapes contain both electronics and lithium-ion batteries as well as nicotine, making them a uniquely toxic form of everyday waste. It is bewildering that something used for a day should be allowed to pollute the environment for a century. To quieten any whining about regulatory changes there is a ready-made alternative for those who can legally vape: refillable e-cigarettes. 

The waste angle is an obvious one — and it’s clearly incongruous to have landfills suffused with throwaway vapes while plastic straws and disposable earbuds are banned. And yet the fact that the Government is trying to legislate on a matter that impacts the health of young people feels even more important. What other threats to their physical and mental wellbeing might be areas of potential oversight? Social media addiction, perhaps? Or access to porn among children?

I don’t proffer any answers here, nor do I think any measures taken would be simple to enforce. But the political class is starting to grasp that how we let the young engage with potential harms is a social choice. The market does not care about their wellbeing — nor would its more honest advocates claim as much.

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.