EXCLUSIVE: Small shops biggest hotspot for illicit vape seizures

Analysis of 88 Freedom of Information responses revealed a 200% increase in vape seizures from convenience stores

vaping restrictions

Small shops made up 60% of all businesses caught selling illicit vapes over the legal 2ml e-liquid limit this year, analysis by Better Retailing can reveal.

Freedom of Information (FOI) responses from 88 councils across the UK revealed the figure, as part of trading standards seizures for the periods of January to September 2022 and 2023.

Analysis by Better Retailing of the responses revealed there was a 200% yearly increase in the number of small shops having vaping stock seized (261 seizures to 773). This included businesses defined as convenience store, newsagent, off-licence, small shop, corner shop and grocer.

The number of specialist vape shops caught selling illicit stock was much smaller in comparison, with an increase of 145% (22 seizures to 54). The total number of instances of illicit-vape seizures from businesses, which also included hairdressers, takeaways and car boot sales, rose annually by 117% (606 seizures to 1,313).

Kate Pike, lead officer for vaping a the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), told Better Retailing the figures were not surprising and stressed the visits would have been “intelligence-led”.

She said: “CTSI has been highlighting for some time the concerns of our members about the amount of illegal vapes being sold which do not comply with UK regulations.

“All trading standards work is intelligence-led, so enforcement visits such as the ones described in Better Retailing’s analysis are not out of the blue. To carry out an inspection for illegal products, we would have intelligence to suggest breaches of the law were taking place.”

The north of England was the biggest hotspot for seizures this year, with 525 visits taking place, followed by the south (429), Scotland (142), Midlands (114) and Wales (101). Councils across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland reported no seizures.

Popular disposable vapes such as Elf Bar, Lost Mary, Elux and SKE Crystal sold in convenience stores were also among the 10,867 illicit vapes seized in 2023. These brands were notably taken off shelves by major symbols groups and supermarkets earlier this year for being illegally overfilled.

The FOI responses also highlighted the severity of punishments following trading standards visits. In the majority of cases, verbal and written warnings were given out (301), followed by an investigation (62), advice (13) and compliance notice (nine). Although no fines were imposed, there was one instance of a business having their tobacco licence removed, while four were escalated to a court hearing.

Ken Singh, of BB Nevison Superstore in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, criticised the levels of enforcement. He told Better Retailing: “There are so many dodgy shops near me with a ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality. Warnings are all good, but they don’t get followed up on, so stores feel like they can continue flouting the law. There needs to be proper follow-up and you need to impose stronger fines to stop rogue sellers.”

Symbol group support

Several wholesalers and symbol groups warned of the consequences on reputation and business relationships if a retailer is caught selling illicit vapes, stressing their zero-tolerance approach to dodgy sellers.

United Wholesale Scotland managing director Chris Gallacher told Better Retailing: “We take the issue of illicit vapes very seriously as a responsible wholesaler, and through our Day-Today symbol group. We support regularly with education, and have recently introduced barcodes into our depots. When scanned by a retailer’s phone, they are taken straight to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA) website which provides guidance and a list of approved products.

“We only supply products approved by the MHRA and we encourage our retailers to only buy from approved sources. Retailers who don’t have the proper checks in place will find it very difficult to buy from us.

“If a symbol group retailer is suspected of selling illicit stock, we will investigate them first and consider the possibility of further action as we don’t want illicit sellers within our symbol group.”

Parfetts retail director Steve Moore also highlighted the support in vaping compliance for its retailers. He said: “The majority of our retailers are responsible and take the selling of illicit products seriously. Thankfully, we haven’t had any instances of retailers selling illicit vapes.

“Our advice to our retailers is to always buy from legitimate sources. Our team of retail development advisors uses resources such as the ACS website for information on vaping and staying legally compliant. Parfetts also regularly holds briefings from our supplier partners, such as Imperial Tobacco, on the illegal vape market.”

Similarly, Nisa provides education on best practice for its retailers through its online portal while it receives insight into the conversations held between its parent company, Co-op, and trading standards on illicit vapes. Nisa retailers are also given details of government consultations and the opportunity to share feedback.

Trade bodies respond

When shown Better Retailing’s findings, UK Vape Industry Association (UKVIA) director general John Dunne described the increase in illicit seizures as “very concerning and reflects a need for much stronger enforcement of the law.”

He added: “The UKVIA has been calling for the government to introduce larger fines and a licensing scheme for shops who sell vapes to discourage rogue retailers who are deliberately flouting the law.

“For those retailers unknowingly selling illicit vapes, the UKVIA provides guidelines for its members and the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) has published a useful guide for retailers on its website. The UKVIA will also shortly be launching a campaign, Be Vape Vigilant, to make it easier for people to report retailers selling illicit vapes to trading standards.”

Fed national vice-president Mo Razzaq added: “Illicit tobacco is a big issue for local shops which does irreparable damage to members’ businesses and to the communities that they serve. Our livelihoods are threatened, through loss of sales and increases in antisocial behaviour.”

“Our members are responsible retailers and verify the age of their customers before selling them tobacco products. Those behind the illicit trade make no such checks, happily selling their products to young people. But that’s not our only concern. The health and safety of people who smoke counterfeit cigarettes is seriously at risk from the highly unpleasant ingredients they can contain.”

ACS chief executive James Lowman highlighted the work the trade body was doing with authorities on clamping down on illicit vapes. He said: “We are committed to helping retailers recognise the features that are telltale signs of illicit or illegal vapes. Our Assured Advice on selling vapes responsibly has a number of examples of the markers of illicit products, and we have been working with trading standards throughout the year at our events to show retailers different kinds of illicit product so that they can recognise them more easily in future.

“For retailers that are still unsure about whether something they’re selling is legitimate or not, the official searchable list of approved products is available on the MHRA website. There remains a significant problem with the distribution of illicit and illegal vapes, which is why we have called on the government to give trading standards more resources to seize product from retailers that are knowingly breaking the law.”


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