The vape sector is in danger of sparking a moral panic of its own making.

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.

More often than not they are choosing disposable vapes, pre-filled and charged devices that are discarded after use. It’s little wonder – they are cheap (typically under £5 with some costing just £2), offered in flavours like cherry cola, strawberry ice cream and blueberry bubble gum, and, it would appear, easy to buy even when underage.

A Chartered Trading Standards Institute investigation earlier this year found of 442 disposable 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.

What’s more, disposables are being promoted directly to kids on social media, with TikTok the most frequently cited source of online promotion (45%) among children, followed by Instagram (31%), according to the ASH study.

Public outrage has so far been limited. But the sector is flirting with disaster given a quarter of devices in the CTSI investigation were not up to UK standards and should not have been on sale here. Up to £3m worth of over-strength, regulation-flouting disposable vaping products are being sold in the UK every week, according to the UK Vaping Industry Association. Just a couple of seriously sick kids could spark rash political intervention that would destroy the category completely.

Some in the vaping sector 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 authorities in China to close 12 counterfeit factories, seizing some 100,000 vapes destined for the UK market.

The UK Vaping Industry Association is calling for a £10k fine for those caught selling to children and a national retail licencing scheme. It also urges suppliers to avoid flavour names that “are reminiscent of confectionery” or use cartoon characters. But chiefly it’s a retailer issue, it says: “Make no mistake, the issue of youth access to vaping sits firmly with unscrupulous traders who are happy to sell to children.”

With that it’s leaving the problem – and its policing – to retailers and Trading Standards. A risky approach. CTSI CEO John Herriman says that for enforcement teams it’s “an increasingly challenging situation as a result of continued government funding cuts for local authorities which has meant spending on Trading Standards has halved over the last decade or so”.

Arrangements to test retailer compliance around underage sales is “patchy” and “sporadic” he adds.

The recent Khan review ‘Making smoking obsolete’ recommends investing additional funding of £15m a year to local Trading Standards. But a lot of that could be spent on another recommendation to “increase the age of sale for all tobacco products from 18, by one year, every year”.

Ultimately, the sector doesn’t have the time to wait for new funding for enforcement from above. Underage vaping is getting worse, and is highly visible. The disposable subcategory could be but a couple of negative news stories away from catastrophe.