It is undoubtedly a bonkers loophole. Today in the UK it is perfectly legal to give free samples of vapes to children. And it’s also A-OK to sell them nicotine-free vapes.
“Completely unacceptable,” says prime minister Rishi Sunak. It would be a struggle to find anyone who disagreed.
The government’s decisive, no-nonsense response? A review. Hardly the “clampdown” Sunak is making it out to be.
Still, even if the loopholes are closed, it’s tinkering around the edges of a major problem. There have been incidents of free samples falling into the hands of kids for years, prompting long-running complaints from campaigners. In 2021, ASH claimed promotional teams working for BAT’s disposable brand Vype (now Vuse) had given a 17-year-old a device in Bath. Even if the practice is understood not to be widespread, it’s hardly a good look for the industry.
And the retailers happily selling nicotine-free devices to kids may well be doing far worse. Like selling nicotine-containing devices. During test purchasing undertaken by Trading Standards in March last year at 32 retailers, 44% sold a device to an underage volunteer.
Then there are those selling devices containing up to 10 times or more the legal limit of e-liquid. A third of vape products sold in the UK are not compliant with regulations, suggests research from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI).
This activity is already illegal. But poorly enforced. In April, the government announced plans to launch an ‘illicit vapes enforcement squad’ led by Trading Standards, backed by £3m in funding. The bulk of the activity will be test purchasing.
The effort – which the UKVIA said “clearly homes in on cutting the source of supply of vapes to minors from rogue resellers” – was broadly welcomed.
The problem is the lack of consequence for those caught. Fines for selling vapes to kids in some instances have been as little as £26, reports the UKVIA. For less scrupulous operators, that might just be a hit worth taking given the enormous margin on devices.
To tackle this problem, the industry has called for fines of up to £10,000 or more, and a licensing scheme for sellers. Neither has been suggested by government. In its forthcoming “review of the rules”, it is simply looking to make it easier for Trading Standards to issue on-the-spot fines.
To its credit, the government has launched a call for evidence in an effort to curb youth use. Suggested measures have included bans on flavoured vapes and their open display in stores.
But again, dodgy sellers are unlikely to pay much mind without the threat of consequence.
Meanwhile, the proportion of children currently vaping is at 7.6%, according to new ASH figures this month. And the proportion of children who have experimented with vaping has grown significantly since last year – up from 7.7% to 11.6%.
A government with an appetite for hardline action on asylum seekers and protesters is appearing a soft touch when it comes to shameless vape sellers.
As ASH chief executive Deborah Arnott put it: “The PM’s proposals are baby steps, not the tough action that’s needed.”