E-cigarettes are going through a bad time in the UK. Illegal imports, sales to underage customers and the failure of certain products to comply with UK regulations have all been the focus of today’s media in recent months.
News Today’s news focuses more on the industry’s problems than its most obvious advantage: e-cigarettes are healthier than smoking.
Even this virtue is called into question, at least because of its limitations. The image of e-cigarettes as a healthier modern alternative to traditional smoking is indeed still fairly entrenched, but many people are still hoping to figure out the smaller health risks they may pose (for asthma sufferers, for example) and the credibility with which they can be quantified.
Research takes time. E-cigarettes are a young business, so research on their potential effects is nowhere near as advanced as research on tobacco. Evidence of illegal products and practices (face boards) comes not only from law enforcement agencies, but also from research by mainstream manufacturers in the e-cigarette industry, many of whom are as interested in commercial legality and transparency as anyone.
JTI, a tobacco and e-cigarette multinational whose products include Logic e-cigarettes, is one of the companies studying the extent of the problem in the UK. Ian HoWell, fiscal and regulatory affairs manager at JTI, said its research showed that more than half of single-use e-cigarette products sold in the UK did not comply with regulations, for reasons including excessive refills and higher nicotine levels than allowed.
Howell is not just talking about products that are blatantly criminal or imported from other jurisdictions with less stringent regulation than the UK.
In a study, JTI said it looked at the 28 most common single-use e-cigarettes in the UK and deemed 25 of them non-compliant. Apparently, these include many everyday items sold by perfectly honest convenience stores.
The manufacturers’ difficulties have also become apparent this year. Last month, Chinese e-cigarette giant Elf Bar – one of the UK’s best-selling e-cigarettes – apologised “wholeheartedly” after some of its e-cigarettes were found to exceed UK legal nicotine limits by 50 per cent.
Stories like these highlight part of the vaping industry’s problems. Despite the regulatory framework in place through the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), in many cases there appears to be a failure in the supervision and enforcement of these regulations. The MHRA sets standards, but it does not regularly test products to make sure they meet requirements. It is very much a standard-setting body, not a testing body.
James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said in the wake of the Elf Bar Revelations that clarity is important. He added: Our members need a clear statement from the MHRA that clearly states which products should be withdrawn from sale.
More generally, Lowman is critical of the services currently provided by the MHRA.
He said: This incident shows us how ill-equipped the regulatory system is to deal with products found to be in breach of MHRA regulations, especially when the product is marked as legitimate but tests show it is not compliant.
“There are also huge problems with product entry into the market, which is clearly in breach of UK regulations, and the MHRA database is behind the market and unfriendly to users. Retailers need to follow the simple steps outlined in our Guide to Selling E-Cigarettes Responsibly. The key steps are to check the number of aspirations claimed on the product (anything over 600 May be illegal) and check the size and wording of the warnings on the packaging.”
Mo Razzaq, national executive committee member of the Federation of Independent Retailers, has similar concerns about the clarity of current e-cigarette legislation. He added that NFRN was also trying to establish proper procedures for disposing of vaping products, mainly because under UK law electronic products can be returned to retailers for proper disposal.
The public’s concern about the perception of the legality of e-cigarette products is evident even in the manufacturers’ propaganda. A small but significant line in this year’s launch of a new e-cigarette product, the Imperial’s Blu Bar, was revealed in this regard.
Imperial explicitly marketed its latest disposable products as fully compliant. Why anything else, retailers might ask? In a market where confidence in compliance is strong, such assertions may be deemed unnecessary.
John Dunn, director general of the UK e-cigarette Industry Association (UKVA), said the problems businesses now faced were complex. There are several issues involved, including the fact that many single-use e-cigarettes are manufactured for the US market, which has different regulations to the UK on allowable can sizes and nicotine strength.
Dunn said the illegal importation of US vaping devices was common and certain parts of the UK were particularly vulnerable, including Greater Manchester.
Dunne said illegal devices often attract consumers because some offer larger capacities – 9,000, 10,000 or 15,000, compared with the UK limit of 400 to 500.
Dunn says: I often go out with trading standards officers to confiscate these things, which are often imported by people who are also importing counterfeit clothing or counterfeit anything.
Another problem, he added, was that the Trading Standards department, which enforces UK regulations, varied widely in its ability to regulate illegal e-cigarettes.
Some people have better resources than others. Dunne praised the efforts of the Westminster committee in London and worked with them on the raids, which included up to 10 trading standards officers and police officers, while other trading standards departments had only one or two staff struggling to cope with the workload on their desks. Dunn added that there are other problems.
One is that once local authorities confiscate e-cigarettes, it costs money to dispose of them. Local authority budgets are so tight that he suspects some councils would rather not bear the cost of disposal, let alone provide the manpower to fund the operation to confiscate products.
The answers to all these questions are widely agreed upon. Almost everyone, except presumably those who break the law, wants more resources devoted to enforcing it. UKVA wants to impose fines of £10,000 on offenders, including those who import and sell illegal products, and anyone who sells to underage customers.
Dunn also said a licensing system for e-cigarette sellers would help weed out irresponsible retailers. This should help stem the number of e-cigarettes being sold to underage buyers and protect the business of legitimate e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers.
Dunn is scathing about those currently trying to evade regulation.
‘It’s 100% greed,’ he said. Not every retailer, but a small percentage of people don’t care what they sell or to whom. It’s important to note that this subset of retailers includes more than just rogue convenience stores, although there are some of them, there are others as well.
UKVA has seen e-cigarettes sold in a variety of different shops, including hairdressers, pizza parlors and sweet shops. This widespread availability – particularly in candy stores – may reflect a widespread feeling that vape products are not in the same ethical ballpark as other products that are banned for sale to children under 18.
The sense that this e-cigarette somehow isn’t taken as seriously as other underage sales seems to be true for convenience stores, too. Lohman said one of the most puzzling things is that the convenience industry has a good track record of regulating underage sales of alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Still, there seems to be a strong feeling that e-cigarettes are too easily accessible to children, even though they have the same 18-year age limit as alcohol or tobacco.
Lowman says: Just like all other products with age restrictions, retailers should adopt a strict Challenge25 policy that only accepts passports, driver’s licenses and pass-approved proof of age as acceptable identification. Our department has an excellent record of preventing underage sales; We need to continue to meet these standards for selling e-cigarettes and all age-restricted products.
The design of some e-cigarettes is another problem. Dunne points to the lollipop shapes or SpongeBob Squarepants themed designs he’s seen in the form to show that not everyone is after a dedicated adult market. If retailers stock such products, they should know what is wrong.
What are the rules?
John Herriman, chief executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute
E-cigarettes and e-cigarettes are regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The rules for e-cigarettes set out on its website state that manufacturers must:
limit electronic cigarettes can has a capacity of less than 2 ml
restrictions in a fill container sales of electronic liquid nicotine maximum volume for 10 ml
limit electronic liquid nicotine concentration less than 20 mg/ml
for nicotine product or its packaging is secure and tamper-proof children
banned some ingredients, including pigment, caffeine and taurine
including the new label requirements and warning
require notification and released all electronic cigarettes and liquids before they can be sold subject to approval by the MHRA.
The problem is that many of the devices confiscated by trading standards teams break these rules, and there are concerns that some may have been specifically designed to appeal to children and young people, with packaging and flavours that mimic popular confectionery brands such as Skittles.
John Herriman, chief executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said: While we recognise that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit, we are concerned about the increasing number of offences, with many non-compliant devices being sold on UK streets at high prices.
Herriman added that convenience stores are also selling noncompliant products.