As the pounding music echoed across Zabeel Hall, flashing lights dazzled and pungent clouds filled the air, Dubai’s first world vape event felt more like a nightclub than a trade show.
The vaping industry is geared up to impress the teen market, something that has attracted controversy and tighter regulation in the US.
Criticism of the industry's intentions is unlikely to fade after the three-day Dubai World Trade Centre extravaganza, where stands such as Chubby Gorilla, Vampire Vape, Suicide Bunny and Vroom targeted new users and smokers to switch to what many claim is a less harmful alternative to tobacco.
In the UAE, the legal age for vaping is 18 and over.
So why are vaping products being so aggressively marketed?
Marketed to smokers wanting to quit but unable to kick the habit, vaping became an alternative that provided users with the hit of nicotine but without the accompanying tar.
The battery-powered e-cigarettes have cartridges filled with a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavouring and chemicals. The liquid is heated up and converted into vapour that the user inhales.
Vaping still introduces nicotine, which is highly addictive, into the body.
Studies have found that nicotine replacement therapy is the most successful way of staying away from cigarettes. Switching to e-cigarettes, however, does not usually result in giving up the habit.
A growing market
“The UAE market is growing at a phenomenal rate because it is so new,” said Tim Philips, managing director of ECigIntelligence.
“We have been tracking sales in the top 10 stores per quarter in the UAE.
“Sales are generally increasing in the region and quite a bit of traffic is coming to the UAE from outside the country.
“The UAE market is growing a lot faster than that of its neighbours.”
E-cigarettes were banned in Qatar in 2012 and then three years later in Oman, but legalised in Bahrain and Kuwait in 2016.
Three years later Jordan and the UAE followed suit and legalised vaping, with Saudi Arabia in 2020 adopting international standards of vaping.
'They can get away with a lot with advertising'
In the UAE, 76 per cent of vaping products sold are not tobacco flavoured, with buyers opting for sweeter varieties instead.
The most popular choice is fruit flavour, with 39 per cent of sales, compared with 31 per cent in the US and 30 per cent in the UK.
The rest of the UAE market is made up by 21 per cent cooling menthol flavours, 14 per cent tobacco flavour, 12 per cent dessert flavour, 7 per cent sweet candy and 6 per cent beverage flavour.
Last year, a lawsuit filed in the US against Juul Labs said that when first starting out the vaping company bought ad space on websites aimed at young people such as Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and Seventeen magazine.
Names like Suicide Bunny and Chubby Gorilla, with their brightly coloured branding have raised eyebrows as to whether children are still the main customer in the crosshairs.
Andrew Laity, a market researcher in the UAE who used to work in the tobacco industry, said the vaping market is using tried and tested means of attracting new customers.
“As with cigarettes before them, the lack of product differentiation leads companies to try and separate themselves through naming and branding," he said.
“As it's less regulated than the tobacco industry, they can get away with a lot more and are essentially replicating the tobacco advertising playbook from the 1950s and 1960s but with more extravagant names.”
Vaping raises new health problems
With only a few long-term studies spread out over years of use, scientists are split on vaping’s long-term physical harm.
Others fear the market is too heavily weighted towards attracting younger buyers, who may be taking up nicotine for the first time, drawn in by cartoon graphics and sweet flavours.
The UK government is pro vaping, with former health body Public Health England stating in 2018 that e-cigarettes were 95 per cent less harmful than conventional smoking.
But it is the age of the consumer that is causing concern.
"Vaping is taking the world by storm,” said Dr Hardik Patel, a specialist pulmonologist at NMC Royal Hospital, DIP.
“Being understood as a substitute for conventional cigarettes, this new vice is slowly gripping the world, encompassing smokers and non-smokers alike. However, it is not all rosy.
“Vaping has its own set of consequences. It is known to cause lipoid pneumonia and even chemical pneumonitis at times.
“These illnesses are acute and at times life-threatening."
The safe alternative is not really that safe after all, Dr Patel said.
“It is my sincere request to people to please refrain from these nicotine products and not believe in stories or information posted by non-certified Individuals.”
This month, the US Food and Drug Administration banned hundreds of thousands of vaping and electronic cigarettes from sale amid fears that more than 80 per cent of users were aged 12-17.
Marketing denial orders were issued for more than 946,000 flavoured products because their applications lacked sufficient evidence that they benefited adult smokers sufficiently to overcome the public health threat they posed in young people.
“These products are not risk-free and are addictive,” said Rebecca Haining, head of regulatory affairs at British American Tobacco in the Middle East.
“We applaud the UAE for taking the initiative to legalise the industry to meet consumer demands and allow adult smokers to switch to a less risky alternative to combustible cigarettes.”
Regulating a new market
“There is a huge opportunity in the UAE to differentiate between smoking and e-liquid – that is the biggest challenge for governments as they begin to lift bans,” said John Dunne, director general of the UK Vaping Industry Association.
Mr Dunne lost both parents to smoking-related lung cancer. He also worked for tobacco giant Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, for 13 years.
“The UAE industry is in its infancy, but it needs some kind of regulatory body to speak with the government to set ground rules and reasonable regulations to allow the industry to grow in the right way,” he said.
When Mr Dunne took on his new role after leaving the tobacco industry in 2012, there were just 20,000 people vaping, with only two available e-cigarettes to choose from.
Now there are about 60 million people vaping worldwide and more than 450 e-cigarette brands on the market.
“All nicotine products have to go through a strict testing regime so putting a body in place would give more confidence that the products are safe.
“You must have over-18 laws in place and look at flavoured names, descriptions, images and packaging to ensure they are not aimed at young people," Mr Dunne said.
Online companies selling vapes in the UK are required to have identification software installed to ensure the person buying is over 18.
Mr Dunne says the UAE industry is likely to continue to adapt to ensure vapes are kept out of the hands of those under 18.