Its flavors are endless and call for indulgence: frozen mango, passionate guava, explosion strawberry, cotton candy, milkshake… Add to that attractive packaging and an accessible price (between €8 and €12 on average) , and you get one of the most popular items of the moment in middle and high schools. Launched in the United States in 2019, the puff hit France in 2021, where it won over teenagers, particularly via social networks. Unlike classic electronic cigarettes, puffs are not rechargeable.
In principle, the law prohibits the sale and promotion of any form of electronic cigarette to minors in France. However, according to a study published in fall 2022 by the Alliance Against Tobacco (ACT), 13% of adolescents aged 13 to 16 have already tasted puffs – some of which may contain nicotine – and 9% have bought. No need to be tricky, you can find them almost everywhere: at tobacconists, in supermarkets, restaurants, newsstands and even certain decoration stores, where they display their tangy charm at the checkouts, near the chewing gums. and other treats…
With what consequences for the health of young people? Among those surveyed by the ACT, 28% had started their introduction to nicotine through this device and 17% then turned to another form of nicotine or tobacco product. A real “pediatric epidemic”, points out Professor Loïc Josseran, president of the ACT, recalling the harmful effect of nicotine on the development of young brains. With this survey confirming the influence of puffs on adolescents, the anti-smoking association hit the nail on the head: six months later, in May 2023, François Braun, then Minister of Health, promised to completely ban “these colorful products” which “lead young people to tobacco”. A project confirmed in September by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, who plans to include it in the new national plan to combat smoking.
If the latter is slow to see the light of day, the banning of the puff would nevertheless be imminent. A bill has been ready for a year. Supported by environmentalist MP Francesca Pasquini, the text points to an “aberration both from the point of view of public health and that of the environmental footprint”. Made of plastic and an integrated lithium battery, this single-use vaping device constitutes a problematic pollutant. Protecting young people at the same time as the planet: the argument is unifying. “This bill immediately sparked enthusiasm among colleagues,” notes Francesca Pasquini, “confident” about the outcome of the vote. “Today, we have more than 160 transpartisan signatures and there are not many people left to defend the puff. »
These days, even vaping professionals tend to distance themselves from it. “Not only is it ecological nonsense, but there is not much to gain for French professionals, most of these devices come from China,” summarizes Jean Moiroud, president of the Interprofessional Federation of vaping (Fivape), which represents independent players in the tobacco industry – or 75% of the sector. He would almost applaud the proposed ban if he did not fear that the entire e-cigarette sector would suffer. “No one says that vaping is harmless, but it is 95% less dangerous than cigarettes. To tarnish its image is to undermine the most effective method of smoking cessation and the most popular among the French,” says Jean Moiroud.
It remains to be seen whether the puff can have an interest in stopping traditional cigarettes as claimed by the representatives of the e-cigarette, or if it is only a product of “insidious promotion of tobacco”. as stated by the Association Addictions France? The survey published last March by the French Observatory of Drugs and Addictive Tendencies (OFDT) provides a nuanced response to the impact of vaping on adolescents. “For the first time, (the) levels of experimentation, use during the month and daily use (of electronic cigarettes, editor’s note) exceed those of tobacco,” noted this study, carried out in 2022 among 23 701 girls and boys aged 17. But if for some young people, vaping does not exclude daily tobacco consumption, the share of exclusive vapers has increased from 2.4% to 5.8% in five years. “This means that there is not a “bridge effect” between vaping and tobacco but on the contrary an “umbrella effect”: this keeps kids away from cigarettes,” says Xavier Brunschvicg, head of the very young Collective of vaping professionals for public health.
Still, in the eyes of the World Health Organization and the High Council for Public Health, the lack of perspective on electronic cigarettes, puff included, requires that young people be protected from them. “None of our vaping products are intended for minors,” asserts Pascal Marbois, director of external affairs at British American Tobacco. The firm, which markets a disposable e-cigarette under the Vuse brand, claims “responsible marketing, with a catalog of flavors adapted to the needs of our adult consumers looking for a reduced-risk alternative to traditional cigarettes. At Vuse, you will not find flavors linked to the world of minors: no candy flavors, “cartoonesque” colors…” continues Pascal Marbois, for whom “it is the responsibility of the seller to ensure the majority of customers.
“Basically, the problem with this product is its open access sale,” adds Jean Moiroud. If the ban on the sale of vaping products to minors, introduced in 2016, was respected, in particular by tobacconists, there would be no subject on puff. »
If he hopes that the law “will provide a deadline to allow sellers to sell their stocks after January 1, 2024”, the president of Fivape is not too worried about the health of the industry. “The sector is used to regulatory adjustments and has already anticipated by imagining other products,” he underlines. At the origin of the best-selling puff in France – the Wpuff – the company Liquideo has just launched the Wpuff pod, a new model in two parts: on one side a rechargeable battery, on the other the flavored liquid , to be changed after 600 puffs. “This avoids putting one in the trash every two days while remaining an easy-to-use device,” summarizes Jean Moiroud. “We also see devices with 6,000, 7,000 or even 9,000 puffs which can be recharged electrically until there is no more liquid in the device,” indicates Amélie Eschenbrenner, spokesperson for the National Committee. against smoking (CNCT). The disposable puff is dead, long live the slightly less disposable puff!
“The industry is moving very quickly,” admits Martin Drago, advocacy manager at ACT. “We are trying to regulate the puff but behind it, other products have arrived in France: nicotine sachets and, more recently, nicotine balls, products sold in tobacconists and for which there is no no regulations in France (only products that can be smoked are regulated, Editor’s note). »
Is the anti-puff law outdated before it has even been passed? Even limited to the first models, it will be very difficult to apply, predicts Amélie Eschenbrenner. “They are everywhere, including on the Internet where we find them with nicotine levels higher than what is authorized in the European Union. You can even have it delivered free of charge within 48 hours…”
Given the difficulties in removing these products from the map, a question arises: why and how did the authorities give the green light to their marketing? “That’s the whole problem, because there is no real control of these products at the entrance,” sighs Amélie Eschenbrenner. At least not as one might expect. In France, the marketing of puffs initially involves the National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (ANSES), responsible for analyzing and verifying the conformity of the information. sent by manufacturers (compliance with the maximum nicotine concentration of e-liquids, i.e. 20 mg/ml, non-toxicity of ingredients, etc.). Objective: to provide scientific and technical insight to the General Directorate of Health, which is responsible for final validation. A paradox, since “these products are not considered as medicines but as commercial products, in the same way as food”, underlines Amélie Eschenbrenner. This logic actually stems from the European directive on tobacco products and therefore also applies to our neighbors.
“According to this directive which dates back to 2014, the authorities can only block the path of a product if it poses a public health problem specific to a Member State, a long and complicated process”, explains MEP Michèle Rivasi, fervent opponent of puffs.
To get out of this contradiction, the CNCT is campaigning for all electronic cigarettes to be recognized as cessation products, and promoted as such. “These would then be medicines, which would have a marketing authorization issued by the National Medicines Safety Agency. The sale would be limited to pharmacies and reserved for smokers for whom other proven methods, such as nicotine patches, have not been enough,” explains Amélie Eschenbrenner. A scenario that the Minister of Health himself mentioned a few weeks ago, without returning to it since.
But for associations, the mother of battles remains the ban on flavored liquids, the only way to deal a fatal blow to e-cigarettes targeting young people. “Puffs are above all driven by aromas. If there is no more aroma, there is no more puff,” says Amélie Eschenbrenner. “We did it at European level for tobacco because we know that it appeals to young people, why wouldn’t we do it for electronic cigarettes? », Launches Michèle Rivasi, who is loudly calling for the revision of the European Parliament’s tobacco directive, which is almost obsolete in view of the new products which regularly appear.
In the meantime, the MP welcomes France’s offensive against puff. “Ireland and Germany have also spoken out in favor of the ban, Belgium has already started the ban procedure, and New Caledonia has banned the importation of puffs into its territory,” he says. -She. Let’s not wait for Europe, too slow and too influenced by tobacco lobbies. States must set an example. »