London: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed his shock at reports of illicit vapes containing lead getting into the hands of schoolchildren as he announced a clamp down on Tuesday.
A loophole that allows retailers to give free samples of vapes to children in England is set to be closed under the new plans.
While selling vapes to under 18s is illegal in the country, businesses have been found to be targeting children with colourful packaging of free samples.
The UK government has also announced that there will be a review into banning retailers selling “nicotine-free” vapes to under-18s.
“I am deeply concerned about the sharp rise in kids vaping and shocked by reports of illicit vapes containing lead getting into the hands of school children,” said Sunak.
“Our new illicit vape enforcement squad – backed by GBP 3 million – is on the case, but clearly there is more to do. That is why I am taking further action today to clamp down on rogue firms who unlawfully target our children with these products,” he said.
The marketing and the illegal sales of vapes to children is completely unacceptable and I will do everything in my power to end this practice for good,” added the father of two schoolgirls.
The clamp down follows recent National Health Service (NHS) figures for 2021 showing that 9 per cent of 11 to 15-year-old children used e-cigarettes or vapes, up from 6 per cent in 2018.
“Whilst vaping can be an effective quitting tool for smokers, it is important that non-smokers are not encouraged to start vaping,” said Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer.
He said there has been a particularly worrying rise in the number of children using vapes, with companies clearly marketing these products at children using colours, flavours and cheap disposable options.
“Closing the loophole that allows companies to give out free samples of vaping products to under 18s is a very welcome step in tackling some of the harms caused by the vaping industry.
“We should continue to encourage smokers to swap to vaping as the lesser risk, whilst preventing the marketing and sale of vapes to children,” he said.
The Department of Health and Social Care said there will also be a review into the rules on issuing fines to shops selling vapes to under 18s illegally to allow local Trading Standards authorities to issue on-the-spot fines and fixed penalty notices more easily.
This will aim to complement existing fine and penalty procedures, and where possible cover both illegal and underage sales for vapes and tobacco. Where gaps are identified, the government said action will be taken to close them.
“The shameful marketing of vaping products to children is leading to growing numbers trying e-cigarettes… We will also review the rules on issuing on the spot fines to shops that break the law by selling vapes to underage children, and look into banning the sale of nicotine-free vapes to under 18s – which we know can be a gateway to using nicotine products,” said UK Health Minister Neil O’Brien.
“Alongside this our new specialised ‘illicit vapes enforcement squad’ will also clamp down on online shops selling illicit vapes to under 18s,” he said.
The squad, which will work with enforcement agencies and learn from the government’s work with Trading Standards on illicit tobacco, will also tackle online shops selling illicit vapes to under 18s.
“Selling products to under 18s has been illegal for some years now, as have proxy sales. Those who ignore the law bring reputable retailers who uphold strict age verification protocols into disrepute,” said Gillian Golden, CEO of the Independent British Vape Trade Association.
“We welcome the planned review on bringing nicotine free products under existing rules and we look forward to continuing to support enforcement agencies in tackling illicit trade and illegal products. The loophole allowing free samples to be distributed regardless of consumer age is a gap that no self-respecting business should ever have considered exploiting,” she said.
The health risks of vaping will be also included in Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) lessons in schools in order to further discourage children from taking up vaping.