Vape and laughing gas thefts are on the rise amid a growth in popularity among young people.
Criminals are increasingly targeting lorries and warehouses stocking vapes, according to the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS).
They are also stealing ‘laughing gas’ nitrous oxide, which is used in the food industry for baking and as an ingredient in whipped cream, but is also often inhaled recreationally.
The rising thefts come in response to increasing demand for these goods, said NaVCIS.
In the past six months alone, six incidents of stolen vaping goods from in-transit lorries or commercial buildings have been reported to NaVCIS’s freight unit.
“It seems to be a new trend this year, and at the moment we’re seeing one incident every four or five weeks,” said NaVCIS analyst Rosemary Amy.
“We don’t know for sure that that’s where our loads are going but we believe that criminals are selling the e-cigarettes under the counter in local shops to young children,” she added.
In total, NaVCIS has been notified of 10 vape-targeted thefts in 2023 – some loads have been stolen from lorries on the road while others were warehouse burglaries.
The costs could go “up to six-figure sums” for each incident, said field intelligence officer Mike Dawber.
“Especially around the vaping stuff you only need small quantities so a pallet or two could be high-value losses.”
One particularly costly incident resulted in an estimated loss value of £190,000 – though criminals could be making much higher sums when they sell the vapes, Dawber noted.
“Wherever goods are in high demand and there is a market that they can be sold on, criminals are always adapting to that market demand,” he said.
The vaping sector has experienced a boom in the past couple of years, with brands like ElfBar and SKE Crystal taking grocery by storm.
However, disposable vapes in particular have come under fire for their sweet flavours and colourful packs, which are seen as a factor in their rising popularity with teenagers.
Ministers are reportedly poised to ban single-use vapes after public calls from local authorities and health groups to make them illegal.
Meanwhile, six nitrous oxide thefts have been registered this year – the majority being criminals attacking curtain-sided lorries in transit, plus one warehouse burglary.
“Sometimes it’s those little silver cylinders and sometimes it’s the bigger blue cylinders that are being stolen”, Amy confirmed.
One incident in particular saw thieves take half a pallet of nitrous oxide cartridges worth around £12,800.
NaVCIS also has “reason to believe” the nitrous oxide charges are being sold under the counter, as it is “becoming a drug of choice amongst the youngsters”.
The recreational use of nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas or ‘balloons’, is not currently classified as an illegal drug.
However, the government was closer to making it a class C drug this week after MPs voted overwhelmingly to change its categorisation, which could result in a sentence of up to two years in prison or a large fine for those found in possession of nitrous oxide.
“It’s hard to pinpoint with these things where they’re getting rid of the goods, what we tend to see is things being sold through corner shops, car boot sales, Sunday markets… One of the challenges for the police is that the products re-enter the supply chain in lots of smaller quantities in different sales outlooks,” Dawber said.
However, the NaVCIS team warned that any corner shop selling higher quantities of balloons than normally expected could be a possible indication of illegal purchasing of stolen goods.
Most of the vape and laughing gas-related crimes reported to NaVCIS so far have taken place in the Leicester, Manchester and Leeds area.