Illicit, over-strength vape products are the most pressing ‘high street threat’ among Trading Standards officers, a major survey has found.

Some 61% of the officers questioned in the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) survey said out of all their high street enforcement work, they were most worried about shops selling illicit vapes, or selling vaping products to children.

CTSI said it had seen a “surge” of illicit vape sales by specialist vape shops, convenience stores and corner shops. Analysis of Trading Standards activity in the north east of England found more than 1.4 tonnes of illegal vapes had been seized in the last six months of 2022 alone.

Vaping devices are regulated by the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which requires that disposable devices have a capacity of no more than 2ml for the vape juice; a nicotine strength of no more than 20mg/ml; and labels which display manufacturer details and health warnings.

However, many of the devices seized by Trading Standards teams “flout these rules”, CTSI said.

“While we recognise vaping can be a useful quitting aid for smokers, we are worried about increasing breaches of the law, with many non-compliant devices being sold on the UK’s high streets,” said CTSI CEO John Herriman.

“There is also an increasing problem with vaping products being sold to children in many general retail premises such as mobile phone shops, gift shops and convenience stores,” he added.

The institute also had concerns about the appeal of the products to children, and underage sales.

“These single-use vapes in particular are very cheap, they look a bit like highlighter pens, they have bright colours, and they are attractive to children,” said David MacKenzie, chair of the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS). “Why does a smoking cessation device have to be these bright colours? There’s no reason for that at all. They’re clearly designed to sell to young people.

“What particularly concerned us, and caught us unawares a bit, is that they are particularly attractive to young children. With a lot of our age-restricted product work on tobacco and cigarettes, fireworks and traditional vapes, we’re looking at sales to 16 and 17-year-olds. But we were getting good information that these were being sold to much younger children, or certainly finding their way into the hands of 12 and 13-year-olds,” MacKenzie added.

According to latest figures from Action on Smoking & Health, current vaping among children aged 11 to 17 is up from 4% in 2020 to 7% in 2022. The proportion of children who admit ever having tried vaping has also risen from 14% in 2020 to 16% in 2022.

A separate CTSI study last year found of 442 disposable vape device test purchase attempts using people under the age of 18, illegal sales were made on 145 occasions, a non-compliance rate of 33%. Underage sales were even higher in mobile phone and discount shops, at 50% and 52% respectively.