Skip to main content

How Do We Get Vaping Regulations Right?

How Do We Get Vaping Regulations Right?

In all my time in this industry, I can’t remember a category that’s sprung onto the market with the scale and impact of so-called “disposable” vapes. I’ll talk below about why I think this is the wrong term to use, but regardless of that, this has become a huge part of many convenience store businesses. This brings with it some challenging regulatory issues that we’re now facing into. Whether through the government’s tobacco strategy or through separate legislation, we’re highly likely to see more regulation of these products within the next few years. How do we get that regulation right?

I would break down this issue into three broad areas: underage vaping, product standards and recycling. Let’s start with what should be the simplest part of this: our sector has a very proud and long-standing record in leading the Challenge25 policy that is now standard across local shops. It applies to alcohol, tobacco, lottery and other age-related products including vapes, and it has worked extremely well. There’s no mystery to this, implementing Challenge25 on every sale has dramatically raised standards over the past twenty years, and this is exactly the policy that most retailers use when selling vapes, and all retailers should be re-focusing on now. To be clear, my ACS colleagues and I won’t be spending a single second defending retailers who aren’t doing this.

The other thing that has driven our strong record of compliance with legislation on underage purchases is enforcement, whether against the Licensing Act for alcohol, Camelot’s Operation Child programme for the national lottery, or trading standards enforcement on tobacco sales. Trading standards officers have powers to enforce against underage sales of vapes and exactly the same fine (£2,500) as for tobacco sales can be levied for breaching the law, but these officers tell us that they don’t have the resource to do this on a systematic basis. It’s been suggested that fines could be higher or that a licensing system could be introduced for selling vapes. Maybe this could be part of the answer, but setting up a whole new bureaucracy would drain enforcement resources, not add to them. Whatever the right penalties, we need to have proper enforcement which means test purchasing, targeting businesses that are selling to the underage, and using the penalties available.

Which leads me onto my second key area: product standards. There are vapes on shelves in shops (yes, including our members, but also American candy stores, specialist vape shops, and more or less every type of shop or service you see on the high street) and being promoted on social media for online sales that do not conform to UK standards. Our vaping guide brings clarity to retailers on this, and sets out what they need to look for to be reassured products are legal for sale. Once again though, we come back to a lack of enforcement. Retailers tell us that customers are coming in asking for non-compliant product, are told it's not available, and are then confidently saying they’ll just go four doors down the road or online to the business that’s selling this product.  While we have a large market that’s entirely unregulated, it’s neither effective nor fair to ramp up regulation on the legitimate businesses who welcome enforcement and work to the legal standards set.

Should product standards be tighter, for example banning some flavours or packaging? Maybe that would help, but once again it’s irrelevant if these standards aren’t enforced. I have a premonition of seeing a self-congratulatory politician celebrating passing these new regulations while round the corner the products that have just been “banned” are being sold by a business confident there will be no enforcement action against them.

It’s not even as if the product standards are being enforced effectively up the supply chain. Testing of products is clearly flawed, and when independent tests have revealed breaches of the regulations, it’s taken an age to even communicate a voluntary and unenforced withdrawal of those products.

So onto my final point: recycling. Sometimes words matter, and the term “disposable vape” has been extremely unhelpful. These products contain a lithium battery that should be recycled (these being a precious resource) safely (as they are a fire risk). Retailers who sell vapes have to offer a returns facility for them or communicate where they can be returned, but the reality is that consumers very rarely use these. Retailers definitely have their part to play in promoting recycling and making it clear that these products really aren’t disposable at all, but we need a collective effort led by government to change behaviour here.

What am I hoping for in terms of regulation of this category? A focus on what’s enforceable and on funding that enforcement activity, using the powers that are available. If these prove insufficient, we should look at what else can stop children vaping, illegal vapes being used, and materials that should be recycled from going to landfill. If you’re a retailer reading this, I’m interested in your views, and more importantly thank you for continuing to promote and implement – every single time – a Challenge25 policy for all age-restricted products.

This entry was posted by Chris onWed, 29/03/2023 - 15:48
Join a network of the most innovative retailers in the sector
Join us today
See more members