A huge, black figurative cloud hangs over the Chinese city of Shenzhen. The so-called vaping capital of the world – home to around 1,000 factories responsible for the design and manufacture of an estimated 90% of vaping devices globally – awoke this morning to a body blow.
Its flagship product – the disposable vape – is to be banned in one of its biggest export markets, the UK. As a source at one major Chinese disposable brand told The Grocer: “This really could be the death of us.”
The category’s biggest players had been cautiously optimistic about the government consultation on youth vaping, launched in October last year. Industry association the UKVIA had seen the probability of an outright ban as a 50/50 spin of the wheel, it is understood.
“Of course we worry,” global communications chief for the company’s ElfBar and Lost Mary brands Jacques Xiang Li told The Grocer late last year. “But we’re actually doing something.”
That ‘something’ involved introducing recycling schemes for spent devices, talking big about penalties for retailers selling to children, and revising flavour names to a more acceptable dullness. Artwork had been drawn up to meet the more likely requirement of plain packaging.
There were signals those actions might be enough. As recently as November, Conservative MP Adam Afriyie, vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for E-Cigarettes, told the industry “we are all in it together” at the UKVIA Forum in London. The expectation was of a “sensible set of recommendations” that the UK could use to demonstrate to the world it “has solved, or at least can solve, the problem and doesn’t need to take major further action”.
(Afryie’s wife, it was reported, is a shareholder in Elite Growth, the retail arm of which sells Moodbar disposable vapes. The APPG for E-Cigarettes has since disbanded.)
The Chinese mega-brands had some reason to feel comfortable. After all, why would the UK government suddenly get tough now, when it had allowed them to ‘get away with it’ for so long?
The level of non-compliance in the sector came to light in February, when it emerged that ElfBar disposable vapes containing 50% more than the legal limit of liquid nicotine were being sold in major supermarkets. Many in the industry had suspected such practices for a year or more.
The flagrant flouting of MHRA regulations resulted in a “voluntary withdrawal” without any threat of fines or bans. Products were back on supermarket shelves within weeks. The Grocer reported ElfBar account managers were telling major retailers to continue selling as normal at the same time as the supposed withdrawal. As one UK brand leader told The Grocer: “If you knew you could go and rob a jewellery store today, and have absolutely zero comeback, then why not go rob the jewellery store?”
Lab tests of other bestselling disposable devices including SKE Crystal, Smok Mbar, IVG, Found Mary, Klik Klak, Solo and Solo+ in March also discovered nicotine juice volumes that far exceeded the legally permitted 2ml. Again with no penalty from authorities for the unfair advantage in securing loyal customers.
Brands have pushed the boundaries in marketing, too. In May, ElfBar was rapped by the ASA for a TikTok post that was found to have breached advertising rules. ElfBar added that as a result of the complaint – which was initially raised by Imperial tobacco – it would cease all TikTok marketing in the UK. But then HQD – another Shenzhen-based brand – was found in breach the same week. Several other brands have attracted the ASA’s contempt, but no fines or sanctions.
The pervading thought among the Shenzhen players appeared to be: ‘if everyone else is doing it, and no one is stopping them, why wouldn’t we?’
Now finally, the seemingly toothless tiger of the UK – as the Chinese brands have come to view it – has bitten hard.
For many, even within the sector, the biggest disposable brands had been getting away with dubious practices for too long. Deep down, the Shenzhen vaping executives probably knew such a day would come. They have certainly made hay while the sun shone: the category more than doubled in value and volumes in 2023. An additional 155.2 million units went through tills. And that’s after more than doubling category value in 2022.
Whether the disposable giants can pivot to permitted device types and recharge their businesses post-ban remains to be seen. The very real prospect is that their light shone bright, but they’ll soon end up discarded in the gutter.