New study reveals significant lack of targeted enforcement is fuelling youth vaping

New study reveals significant lack of targeted enforcement is fuelling youth vaping as ministers look to crackdown on underage sales


Data gathered through FOI requests by Arcus Compliance has shone a light on the activities of Trading Standards teams across the country in addressing youth access and illegal products.

The findings show that across 11 major provincial UK cities – which have a shared population of more than 5.5 million people – just 21 successful prosecutions have been made against retailers for underage/illicit sales between 2021 and early 2023.

Further, the highest total amount of fines given out across these cities over the same time period was £2,188.

This is less than the current maximum fine that can be issued to just one offender at £2,500 and is considerably less than the £10,000 on-the-spot fines that much of the sector, led by the UK Vaping Industry Association, has been asking Government for.

The data also covers the activity of Trading Standards teams across London. In the areas covered by ten local authorities that make up central London there were just seven reported successful prosecutions and one fine of £1,000 between 2021 and early 2023.

Twenty-one local authorities provided data on prosecutions, fines, raids and product seizures for underage and illicit vape sales. A handful also claimed that there was punitive action that was unconcluded or that there were ‘expected’ or ‘almost certain’ prosecutions impending.

The research comes after the Prime Minister put forward plans for a generational smoking ban and the government announced new investment for illicit tobacco and vape products enforcement functions.

Robert Sidebottom, Managing Director of Arcus Compliance, the authors of the report, said the ‘concerning lack of proactive enforcement in the form of prosecutions and penalties shown by our research demonstrates that the ‘system is in serious distress’.

He said: “It’s staggering to see just how few prosecutions there have been and how low the levels of fines are, given the huge amount of concern over youth and illicit vaping. Trading Standards have been crying out for additional resources and support for some time and there’s no doubt as to why.

“The government has now pledged £30 million to help intercept illegal tobacco and vaping goods at the border and to tackle youth access.

“While this is a welcome development, we can’t just slap a multi-million-pound Band-Aid on the issue of underage and illicit vape sales and call it a day – especially if parliamentarians move on considerations to restrict the sale of disposable vapes.

He added: “This is a complex challenge which also requires regulators to ensure rogue traders are facing impactful punitive action, as well as greater national coordination from Trading Standards and greater powers for local enforcement officers.

“It should be noted that, according to Action on Smoking and Health Chair and Imperial College London Professor Nick Hopkinson, Trading Standards budgets have reportedly been halved, cut by an estimated £200 million, since 2010 – almost seven times the newly announced £30 million enforcement investment.”

Sidebottom questioned whether actions like fines, prosecutions and product seizures were being tracked effectively as cases continue to crop up in the media but didn’t appear to feature in the FOI feedback.

He also queried how much of the new investment would actually be used for vape enforcement and asked whether there were regional enforcement teams specifically tackling illicit vape trade or whether officers were spread across other age restricted areas such as alcohol, suggesting that it might be time for a more focused approach.

UKVIA Director General John Dunne, said: “It’s no wonder we are facing a youth vaping challenge when you see figures like the ones in this new report.

“Steps must be taken to ensure these products don’t end up in the hands of minors, but a ban on disposables is not the answer. Instead, regulators must ensure existing laws on illegal products and underage access are being fully enforced and those who break the rules face meaningful punitive action.

“Just recently I was shocked to read of a case where a retailer was fined a paltry £26 by a court for selling a vape to a 15-year-old – that amount is closer to pocket change than it is to being an actual deterrent.”

Dunne added that the new research reinforces calls for on-the-spot penalties of up to £10,000 for illicit sellers as several Trading Standards teams reported they currently don’t have the power to issue fines.

He said: “Although penalties and prosecutions are key weapons in our arsenal against cowboy sellers, they mean very little if Trading Standards don’t have the resources AND authority to pursue them – the government must take this new data very seriously.”

The research report also features a detailed case study on enforcement efforts in North Lanarkshire, where 36 Fixed Penalty Notices – amounting to £8,600 have been issued to retailers for the sale of nicotine vape products to minors between 2021 and early 2023.

This is more than 2.5 times the amount issued in fines and FPNs by the other 21 local authorities to provide data for this report.

If you would like to request a copy of the full report, please contact us