Millions of illegal and potentially harmful vapes have been seized in the last three years, data shows, with experts warning this is just the “tip of the iceberg” and they are “mainly coming from China”.
Freedom of information requests to 125 local authorities revealed that more than two and a half million illicit e-cigarettes were collected since the beginning of 2020, reports stated, adding that figures show that 1,352,063 were seized by trading standards at Hillingdon borough council in west London alone. The council area includes Heathrow airport, where thousands of unlawful vapes are arriving. Kent county council seized 329,276 illicit vapes in 2022 and has seized 49,528 in 2023 so far.
In Kent, trading standards officers are tackling the problem by visiting retailers to “provide advice and remove illegal products from the market while also ensuring those retailers have measures in place to prevent sales to young people”.
Kate Pike, the lead officer at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, warned that the figures are likely to be the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of how many non-compliant vapes are being sold in UK shops. I get calls from colleagues at the port almost every day – it feels like there is a tsunami. They are mainly coming from China.”
Pike said non-compliant vapes are particularly popular with underage consumers as they are cheap and could be bought in places that are less likely to check ID.
“We don’t need sniffer dogs to find these products as they are all on shelves in high-street shops, in full view of the public,” Pike said. “There is a significant number of illegal products on the market, which does not help when we are trying to support the public health response, which is to ensure the products are much safer than tobacco for smokers looking to quit.
“The main concern is that young people are getting their hands on these products … We do not want children or adults getting addicted to something at all like this,” she said.
Phil Jenkins, a senior London Trading Standards officer who oversaw the seizure of 1 million illegal vapes at Heathrow last year, said they came in on commercial flights as standard cargo and were declared as atomisers on the paperwork. Businesses are factoring in that some vapes would be intercepted, so would over-order, Jenkins added.
Pike said that illegal vapes often did not have the right warnings or information on their packaging. “We know that legal compliant vapes pose a fraction of the risk of smoking but we do not know what the risk is from illegal vapes,” she said.
The figures by Trading Standards come after the government pledged to end a loophole which allowed free samples of vapes to be given to children. Prime minister Rishi Sunak has expressed concern about his own daughters potentially being targeted by vape marketing. The government plans also include a review into banning retailers selling “nicotine-free” vapes to under-18s. There will also be a review of the rules on issuing fines to shops that illegally sell vapes to children.
The vaping industry is also calling for stronger enforcement of regulations and for illegal vaping products to be treated as seriously as counterfeit cigarettes.
Dan Marchant, the director of the retailer Vape Club, said illicit vape products “have the potential to be dangerous”. He said they could be spotted by how many puffs they advertise, as anything offering more than 500-700 has usually “not been through the appropriate testing and safety measures”.