The Problems with Online Marketplaces

Illegal and potentially dangerous products continue to be found on leading non-specialist marketplace websites meaning vapers need to be careful where they buy from. Investigations have revealed that illegal, non-compliant vape products are being listed on Amazon and eBay and pose potential health and safety risks despite concerns being raised about this many years ago. We delve into what the problems are and what you can do to avoid the pitfalls.

Historical problems
Battery Mooch has been a mainstay of the vaping enthusiast scene for years, an expert in all things lithium-ion batteries, publishing reviews and tests of cells used to power vape products.

In 2019, he wrote a warning on his Facebook page, saying: “There is no 18650 with a capacity rating over 3600mAh”.

What prompted him to write this? Across the year there had been a huge growth in listings advertising ridiculous battery specifications.
The mAh figure on a li-ion battery gives an indication of how long it will last between recharges. The claimed amp (A) rating reflects how much current can be drawn from the battery by a low resistance coil. To mislead consumers on the mAh rating will result in disappointment, to lie about the A rating is potentially dangerous. The maximum you should see is 30A on cells for very low resistance coils or 3600mAh for longer lasting, higher resistance coils.

Complaints flooded in regarding cells purporting to offer amperage rating of over 30A and impossible mAh ratings of 5000 to 12000. Eventually eBay banned the sale of vape products – but the problem persists, and it is still possible to find cells claiming to offer 9900mAh today.

What other issues are posed by online marketplace websites?
It is unsurprising that would-be sellers have flocked to eBay and Amazon. In the UK, with 407-million and 298-million visits per month respectively, Amazon and eBay dwarf the rest of the UK eCommerce marketplace sector. Combine the potential volume of people with the growth in the volume of the e-cigarette market, currently estimated to be worth £1.325-billion in 2021, people see them as a viable route to customers. The problem with this is that it has attracted disreputable vendors.
Harking back to the battery issue, Torchy (another online expert in assessing lithium-ion cells) has stated that a well-known budget brand of battery claims to deliver a believable 3000mAh. But, when he tested the 18650 cells, he discovered the true capacity of the battery was 530mAh.

Looking to single use (disposable) vapes, commonly the product packaging of legal, MHRA-registered ecigs state that they contain up to 600puffs. Online, at the time of writing, both eBay and Amazon host adverts for vendors selling disposable ecigs claiming to provide 2400 puffs, 3500 puffs, 4000 puffs, and even 7000puffs. These high figures are a clear indication that the items for sale are not compliant with UK regulations and therefore pose a clear risk that isn’t present with legal devices.

What other issues have been identified?
The Guardian newspaper investigated the issue last month and journalists discovered that six out of seven of the vapes they purchased from Amazon were illegal ones, breeching UK law and not registered with the MHRA (The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency). Moreover, ones claiming not to contain any nicotine were found to possess up to 13.5%mg/ml of nicotine (this is quite strong, and the maximum allowed by UK law is 20mg/ml). Only one of the products stating that it was nicotine-free actually was.
Despite eBay claiming to have banned all vape sales in 2019, products are still freely available online. The Guardian reported that Amazon said it had removed the illegal products from sale but, as stated earlier, illicit vapes are still appearing on the first results page when searching for disposable ecigs.

Why does this matter?
Firstly, these types of sales mean that under-age buyers can obtain access to products they should not be able to purchase. In turn, this has caused politicians to begin considering banning all single-use e-cigarettes and they are also considering restricting the range of flavours of all e-liquid bottles – a move that is being supported by tobacco companies who manufacture vaping products. So, from a teen access and legislation perspective, these illegal products pose a real risk to the whole industry.
Also, with the illicit products not having gone through the registration process, there is no guarantee of product safety. The aforementioned batteries pose a genuine fire risk and there is no guarantee that rechargeable vape products are safe in use either.

The standards vape products must meet mean that any legal UK vape products guarantees that it doesn’t contain banned ingredients. The government is able to say that vapes are “at least 95% safer than cigarettes” because they do not contain prohibited substances like diacetyl – this can’t be said for the higher capacity black market ones coming in from abroad where they don’t have to meet our high standards.

Lastly, while nicotine is not a carcinogen, if something says it is nicotine-free then that is what you should expect. MHRA-registered products must undergo testing to prove they contain what they claim and not contain banned substances. If illicit products can’t get nicotine-free right, who knows what else they contain?

What can I do if I’ve bought an illegal product?
The Guardian’s article quotes Julian Beach from the MHRA saying: “If you have purchased a product that is not published on our website, you should return it to the retailer or your local trading standards service. If you experience an adverse effect from use of a nicotine-containing e-cigarette product, please report it to us via our Yellow Card scheme.”

How can I avoid buying illegal / dangerous vape products?
Whether it is a starter kit, a disposable vape, or batteries for your device, you are always best placed by buying from a reputable specialist – even better, buy from a specialist in vaping who only stocks and sell MHRA-compliant products and belongs to a trusted trade body.