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Concerns about vapes targeted at children

Tempting dessert flavours and bright colours used in vape marketing have sparked fears for community leaders and Trading Standards bosses in Staffordshire that the products are being targeted at children.

Staffordshire County Council's Stafford headquarters

There are also concerns about vape shops operating close to schools and colleges in the county – and the number of children using vapes has tripled in the past three years, councillors have heard.

It is illegal to sell vapes to under 18s. But several shops across the country have been caught carrying out underage sales – and Staffordshire Trading Standards has conducted dozens of “test purchases” as part of action to crack down on the practice, the county council’s Safeguarding Overview and Scrutiny Committee heard at its latest meeting.

Trish Caldwell, the county commissioner for regulatory services and community safety, said: “Illegal vapes are very prevalent at the moment and there is a growing issue in respect of illicit vapes. We’ve got non-compliance and the issue of selling to children.

“Vapes are substantially less harmful than smoking because they don’t contain tobacco, and therefore can be used as an effective tool (for) people who want to stop. That aspect of being able to have vapes to help reduce smoking is important.

“However the number of children using vapes has tripled in the last three years and 20% of children have tried vaping in 2023. Due to the nicotine content and the unknown long-term harms, this carries a big risk for children and also that addiction element.

“Health advice is clear – young people and those who have never smoked should not vape. Encouraging children to use a product that is designed for adults to quit smoking is not acceptable.

“We are seeing regularly promoted vaping products that are clearly designed to appeal to children through flavours, descriptions and the instore marketing, despite the fact there is a risk of nicotine addiction. There are fruit and dessert flavours and attractive wording can be used as well, so you see things like ‘berry blast’ – things you associate with children’s confectionery.”

During 2022-23 national Trading Standards identified that 27% of 1,000 vape test purchases carried out for underage sales resulted in an illegal sale, councillors were told. In Staffordshire 76 test purchases have been carried out and nine per cent of those resulted in a sale to children.

Illicit vapes are also a rising concern across the country, Ms Caldwell said, and in 2022/23 2.1 million illicit vapes were seized by Trading Standards across England. She added: “These vapes, we know because we’ve tested them, carry unknown ingredients, higher levels of nicotine than they should and are targeted at children as well.

“Within Staffordshire we have seized 115,000 illicit vapes in this year to date. Many of those we have seized are not compliant with the law, in that they are larger tanks than are acceptable and have far too many puffs included in them.”

Councillor Bob Spencer, who chaired the meeting, asked: “Are we maximising enforcement powers and abilities we have? I think most of us would agree we need to be putting people before courts as well as advising and telling – these people know what they’re doing.”

Councillor Janet Eagland said: “I’m very concerned about vaping because it was brought to my attention some months ago about just how natural it is for children to be able to use this vaping system. They share it amongst themselves as well.

“Why can’t we have the same restrictions we have with tobacco? It took us a long time to restrict the rules around selling tobacco to everybody, whether children or adults and we’re going to have to go down this road with vaping because it’s on the increase.”

Councillor Johnny McMahon said: “Children and vaping is really quite a serious business. Is there a straightforward way for parents, carers and schools to be able to inform you of the degree of vaping so you can focus your attention on particular areas?”

Ms Caldwell said: “We have a hotline so people can report that sort of issue and we pick up quite a bit of intelligence through that. For example a shop who is clearly, at times that schools finish, selling vapes to children – we have had reports put onto that hotline which we can then act on from a Trading Standards perspective and we will follow up.

“Rest assured, when we find businesses (breaking the law) we will follow the route and prosecute. In the future the alternative, when there will be a licensing regime where licences of shops will be able to be revoked, we will have another tool in our toolkit to be able to refer to HMRC, who will then be able to take enforcement action beyond just prosecuting the existing shop owner.

“There are shops out there that we can prosecute and do. Then the same thing happens again, however you find there’s a different shop owner.

“Closure orders are something we are exploring with persistent offending premises as opposed to individual shop owners. There are issues in the system more broadly at the moment and that relates to court delays – we are having to wait for court cases to come to fruition, very often being postponed and rescheduled on more than one occasion.”

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