Tackling the illegal sale of vapes to minors

Are disposable vape bars getting into the wrong hands? Has youth vaping become an epidemic? These are the questions in the news at the moment. With the UK government unveiling new measures to combat the issue of vaping by minors, we wanted to take a look at the whole picture.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking, and a far more effective quitting tool than other forms of nicotine delivery system and quitting cold turkey. That being said, vaping should ONLY be seen as a safer alternative for people that already smoke. We don’t condone vaping devices being used by never-smokers, and this counts double for minors. 

So how do we exploit the huge potential of vaping to help adults quit, while simultaneously stopping children from taking up vaping?

Cutting smoking rates while tackling underage vaping
This sort of questioning has dominated all discussions about vaping over recent years - and has really reached a tipping point over the last few months. Around the world, shortsighted and narrow minded officials have jumped firmly onto the ‘ban them all’ bandwagon; completely disregarding the benefits for adults rather than putting the work in to combat the youth vaping issues as a separate topic.

Luckily for vapers in the UK, the government, and all official health bodies, tend towards a more sensible harm reduction outlook whereby they definitely recognise the pros and cons. 

This week, Minister Neil O’Brien, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, revealed the UK government’s plans to cut smoking rates while tackling underage vaping. The speech was positively received by responsible advocates of the vaping industry, with Minister O’Brien stating that, “We are very keen to work with industry to promote vaping and stamp out the illicit trade”.

Youth vaping - what do the numbers say?
Year-on-year, the recorded numbers of children using e-cigarettes is shown to be on the rise. However, have we now reached youth vaping ‘epidemic’ levels of usage, as the media would have us believe? 

Numbers concerning youth usage are monitored by ASH (Action on Smoking and Health). The ASH Smokefree GB Youth Survey is an annual survey of young people in Great Britain ages 11-18 which has been running since 2013. The survey is carried out online by YouGov and is commissioned by ASH and funded by a combination of the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health and Social Care.

The latest findings conclude that, in 2022, 15.8% of 11-17 year olds had TRIED vaping, compared to 11.2% in 2021 and 13.9% in 2020.

However, when regular usage was questioned, these figures dropped to 7.0% in 2022, compared to 3.3% in 2021 and 4.1% in 2020.

Delving more deeply into this rise, the key explanation would appear to lie with the exponential growth in the availability of disposable vape bars.

Disposable vape bars - friend or foe?
In 2022 the most frequently used product amongst 11-17 year olds who regularly vape was a disposable (52.0% compared to 7.7% in 2021), with the most popular brands by far being Elf Bar and Geek Bar.

Disposable ‘puff bars’ have undergone a meteoric rise in popularity since 2021, and not just with minors. They are proven to be extremely effective at getting smokers that may be sceptical about vaping to give it a go. That’s down to there being minimal initial monetary outlay, and no complexity to the device. 

As a company, we alone sold nearly 4m disposable vapes in 2022. We (alongside our fellow responsible vape retailers) have an established and robust age verification process in place that does not allow for the sale of any vaping products to anyone under the age of 18. This should tell you that hundreds of thousands of adult smokers are regularly using disposables.

Also worth considering is that it’s not just responsible online vape retailers like us that stock these devices. You can buy disposables at every supermarket, petrol station, and off-licence in the country (as well as from less reputable online vape merchants).

And therein lies a key problem with vape usage being on the rise with the younger generation.

Calls to crack down on law breaking vape retailers
In a survey of more than 400 Trading Standards officers, 60% said their main worries were shops selling illegal vapes which are potentially unsafe, and the sale of any vaping products to under-18s.

"When Trading Standards teams do spot checks on the sale of vaping products to kids, we find around one in three businesses break the law," says Duncan Stephenson, director of external affairs at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. The worst offenders seem to be mobile phone shops, convenience stores, and online marketplaces such as Ebay and Amazon.

UKVIA, the vaping industry’s leading trade body,  recently called for no holds barred enforcement, with heavy fines for any retailer found selling vaping products directly to minors. 

John Dunne, the director general of UKVIA, said in a statement, 

“Enough is enough, the industry has a duty of care to young people. We need to send a strong message out to the minority of rogue retailers and wholesalers who do not care about breaking the law as they know they won’t get severely punished for doing so.

“The time has come to introduce heavy fines to deter rogue retailers from re-offending and putting vape products into the wrong hands. There needs to be consistency across the board and any regime that is introduced to stamp out under-age access to vapes needs to be applied to all retailers.”

Illicit vapes enforcement squad
Within Minister Neil O’Brien’s speech this week was a plan to launch a new ‘illicit vapes enforcement squad’ to reinforce the rules on vaping, and tackle unregulated vapes and underage sales.

This squad will be led by Trading Standards who will share knowledge and intelligence across local authorities. They will undertake test purchasing, and have the power to remove illegal vaping devices from shops and our borders.

In the speech he said, “The new illicit vapes enforcement squad will work across the country and clamp down on those businesses who sell vapes to children - which is illegal - and get them hooked on nicotine. Our call for evidence will also allow us to get a firm understanding of the steps we can take to reduce the number of children accessing and using vapes.”

Keep vapes out of the hands of children
We welcome any new initiatives that make it as difficult as possible to sell vaping products to minors. Although regular underage vaping isn’t as prevalent as the media would have us believe, any children who vape but have never smoked is a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s not only critical for the health of our young, it’s also crucial for the health of our adults

If the issue with youth vaping persists, the UK may well see no other option but to follow suit with other countries and start imposing bans. Smoking prevalence in the UK is the lowest on record, thanks in part to vaping, and it would be a tragedy to see that reversed.