The vaping industry risks unleashing a moral panic of its own making.
According to the latest figures from Action on Smoking & Health, current vaping among children aged 11-17 has increased from 4% in 2020 to 7% in 2022. The proportion of children who admit to having tried vaping is also increased from 14% in 2020 to 16% in 2022.
Most often, they choose disposable vapes, pre-filled and charged devices that are thrown away after use. It’s no wonder – they’re cheap (usually under £5, with some as low as £2), available in flavors like cherry cola, strawberry ice cream and blueberry chewing gum , and, it seems, easy to buy even when they are minor.
A survey by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute earlier this year found that of 442 attempted purchases of disposable device tests using people under the age of 18, illegal sales were made on 145 occasions, a rate of no -33% compliance. Miner sales were even higher at mobile and discount stores, at 50% and 52% respectively.
In addition, disposable products are promoted directly to children on social media, with TikTok being the most frequently cited source of online promotion (45%) among children, followed by Instagram (31%), according to the study. ASH.
Public outrage has so far been limited. But the sector is flirting with disaster given that a quarter of the devices in the CTSI survey were not to British standards and should not have been on sale here. According to the UK Vaping Industry Association, up to £3 million worth of non-compliant high potency disposable vaping products are sold in the UK every week. A few critically ill children could trigger reckless political intervention that would completely destroy the category.
Some in the vaping industry are trying to counter these issues. Geek Bar – one of the most popular disposable brands – this year redesigned its packaging (making age restrictions clearer) and worked with Chinese authorities to shut down 12 counterfeit factories, seizing some 100,000 vapes destined for the UK market.
The UK Vaping Industry Association is calling for a £10,000 fine for those caught selling to children and a nationwide retail licensing scheme. It also urges vendors to avoid flavor names that “reminiscent of confectionery” or use cartoon characters. But it’s mostly a retailer problem, he says: “Make no mistake, the issue of youth access to vaping rests firmly with unscrupulous marketers who are happy to sell to children.”
With that, it leaves the problem – and its oversight – to retailers and trade standards. A risky move. CTSI CEO John Herriman said for law enforcement teams it was “an increasingly difficult situation due to continued cuts in government funding to local authorities, which meaning that spending on trade standards has halved over the past decade”.
Provisions for testing retailers’ compliance regarding sales to minors are “patchy” and “sporadic”, it adds.
The recent Khan review ‘Making Smoking Obsolete’ recommends investing an additional £15m a year in local trading standards. But much of that money could be spent on another recommendation to “raise the age of sale of all tobacco products from 18, by one year, every year.”
Ultimately, the sector does not have time to wait for new funding for top-down enforcement. Underage vaping is getting worse and very visible. The disposable subcategory might be just a few negative news stories away from disaster.