Illegal Vape Retailers in the UK

As a responsible online vape retailer, I am fed up with the number of corner shops, phone shops, and petrol stations selling oversized, unregulated, and illegal vapes and, as it transpires, selling them to our children!

Walking along my local high street, into these stores, pointing out the amount of illegal stock on sale is genuinely terrifying.

To make matters worse, from my experience, when approached, the in-store staff either don't even realise what they are doing or don't care. This is terrible - two serious issues are going on here that we should all be very concerned about:

Firstly, the illegal sale of vapes to minors, and secondly, the unlawful, unregulated vape products being sold on the high street.

The legal age for vaping in the UK

The legal age for vaping in the UK is 18 years old, the same as for smoking. The sale of ANY nicotine-containing products (gum, e-liquid, nic-pouches and vape devices) to those under 18 is prohibited by law.

In bricks-and-mortar stores, retailers should follow the Challenge 25 process at checkout to ensure a customer is over 18 with a valid ID if they look younger than 25. Given the widespread problem of teenagers vaping, the majority clearly are not!

Meanwhile, reputable online retailers (Vapourcore included) are expected to use a robust age verification check as part of the checkout process, which checks personal details against the electoral roll, mobile phone contracts, driving licence details, and more. Minors simply cannot provide false information to proceed with an online purchase as they can in a high street store.

Online retailers are doing their bit, so why aren't the high-street retailers following the rules?

Vape regulation in the UK

All UK-legal vaping products are regulated by The 'Tobacco and Related Products Regulations' (TRPR) set out by the UK government, which means they must adhere to the following guidelines:

  • An e-cigarette tank/device can hold a maximum legal limit of 2ml of e-liquid.
  • E-liquid must not have a greater nicotine content than 20mg or 2%
  • Nicotine-containing e-liquids cannot be sold in bottles bigger than 10ml
  • All nicotine-containing vape products must be listed on the MHRA website as approved products*

Products are only approved for sale after disclosure of all ingredients, passing an emissions testing process, and submitting proof of compliant packaging. Any disposable vape, tank or e-liquid sold in the UK containing more than 2ml of e-liquid, with a nicotine strength above 20mg, that does not appear on the MHRA website is illegal.

The reputable vape shops and online stores only purchase and sell legal, compliant products notified by the MHRA and will only buy their stock from trusted suppliers.

At Vapourcore, for example, before listing a product on our website, we manually double-check that it appears in the list of products approved for sale and displays the ECID number unique to the device, flavour, and strength.

You may remember the 2023 investigation highlighting that some Elf Bars contained more e-liquid than they should? Because of the regulations in place in the UK, the affected ranges were easily identified and quickly removed from sale.

Whilst there was never any concern for the health of vapers when using these illegal Elf Bars, there are MANY others on the shelves of high street stores that are promising thousands of puffs, with nicotine strengths of up to 50mg, that are clearly not within the legal guidelines.

Worryingly, when inhaling these illegal, unregulated vapes, you cannot be sure what they contain as their ingredients have not been lawfully disclosed or even tested for safety!

Why are retailers selling illegal vapes in the UK?

A high cost is involved in complying with UK regulations, even before a vape product comes to market. This means that UK-legal stock is more expensive than counterfeit alternatives.

With potentially higher overheads than an online set-up, the rogue bricks-and-mortar stores seem attracted to the cheaper, illegal stock to make their businesses more profitable. Many are taking advantage of the age-old marketing trick that says 'bigger is better' when it comes to puffs and nicotine strength, as it brings higher value sales.

At the same time, importers ignore the regulations because they know they are unlikely to get caught bringing the goods in. Vapes are so widely sold now that counterfeit goods are a huge money spinner for those willing to take the risk. Both importers and high street retailers know there is insufficient manpower to ensure everything gets checked.

What is happening to combat the sale of illegal vapes in the UK?

I appreciate that the government plans to address the problems of underage sales and illicit products in the vape market following their 2023 consultation.

However, I feel that whatever becomes law very soon will also affect genuine vape retailers - increasing prices and potentially restricting access to popular flavours that help real adult smokers try to quit.

Trading standards in local areas are becoming more involved and showing improvement. The industry bodies are now pushing for licensing and more significant fines for those "black market cowboys", but the vast number of high-street retailers, garage forecourts, mobile phone shops, etc, and lots selling illegal vape products to minors is too huge to police and shut down quickly.

My opinion is that only a select few vape-only stores should be licenced in every borough to manage and maintain the vape industry the way it set out. With in-store age verification and strict, regulated policies in place, it would halt the sales to minors (as it does online) and, most importantly, re-focus on helping smokers quit.

These licenced stores should be the ONLY retailers of vape products to adults aside from online vape shops.

Rather than adding vapes to their shelves to make fast money, other retailers should return to selling sweets, fixing broken phone screens, and leaving the serious business of retailing vapes to the experts.

And to all the vapers reading this, if you are doing it, please stop buying vapes from unscrupulous general store retailers on the high street. Stick to reputable vape shops that sell legal, compliant products. Authenticate any purchases, and do your research beforehand. That way, you are reducing the risks to your health and avoiding contributing to potentially criminal activities.

Better still, choose an established, secure online site with a history and long-standing relationships with manufacturers, brands and regulatory bodies - just like us here at Vapourcore!

Related Articles

UKVIA Challenge 25 Guidance

IBVTA outlines policy recommendations to tackle vape sector challenges

Government says no more free vapes for kids

BVTA outlines policy recommendations

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