Vaping has surged in U.K. prisons since a smoking ban went into effect in 2017 (in England and Wales), according to Filter.
In the 2021–2022 financial year, prisoners spent close to £8 million on vapor products. Prisoners have access to vapes as well as nicotine-replacement therapy.
While the surge in vaping has been positive in terms of harm reduction, the abrupt change has had its challenges. With the prohibition of smoking in prisons came illicit cigarettes and trading/selling other personal property, including meals, in order to obtain cigarettes.
The Howard League for Penal Reform “has supported making prisons smoke-free in principle, given the health risks to both prisoners and staff,” said Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns. “But we’ve always been concerned that the ban was implemented responsibly and that prisoners were given the proper support and resources to move away from smoking.”
Neilson cited a general lack of provisions to support mental and physical health, including lack of access to fresh air. “Prisons are still struggling to deliver these kinds of open regimes after the pandemic effectively locked prisons down and saw people kept in their cells 23 hours a day.”
The smoking ban raises questions, according to Andy West, who teaches philosophy in prisons, when a prison cell is someone’s residence and when “people still want to smoke” and “prisons seem to stoke addictions.” He said that illicit cigarettes are “more dangerous” and “Prohibition always creates a bigger monster than the one it kills.”
Despite this, the number of prisoners who have turned to vaping and stuck with it is promising. “The fact that many people have access to vaping products is welcome news from a tobacco harm reduction perspective,” said Debbie Robson, senior lecturer in tobacco harm reduction at King’s College London. “Great progress has been made in creating a smoke-free prison estate despite doubting it was achievable given the high smoking rates in prison settings.”
Robson speaks with formerly incarcerated individuals while conducting research, and many have expressed that their first vaping experiences were in prison, and “some have stayed smoke-free ever since.”
“As a nurse, that makes me question why a prison setting may be the first time someone has the opportunity to use a vape,” she said. Outside the prison system, “health and social care practitioners can do more to raise awareness and reduce barriers to vaping in groups where smoking prevalence is high,” she said.