Some ‘nicotine-free’ vapes high in addictive substances, tests reveal | E-cigarettes

Some high street vapes claiming to be nicotine-free actually contain the same level of addictive substances as full-strength e-cigarettes, tests shows.

Data shared with the Guardian by Inter Scientific – which offers analytical testing of products to check whether they are following regulations – examined dozens of vape brands sold in shops across England and Wales.

The data showed that oversized and overstrength vapes are being sold unlawfully in shops. Laboratory analysis of 52 products bought in England showed 73% were above the legal e-cigarette tank capacity of 2ml. More than 40% of those tested had been filled with 5ml of liquid or more.

The analysis also showed that eight devices purporting to contain no addictive substances did contain some, with many containing almost 20mg/ml of nicotine – the legal limit in the UK. One vape had levels more than 50% higher than the legal limit.

It comes as the government has launched an “illicit vapes enforcement squad” as part of a crackdown on the sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s. There have long been concerns that vapes are being targeted at children, and the number of teenage vapers is on the rise. The latest survey by Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) revealed that in 2022, 7% of 11-17-year-olds surveyed said they used vapes, compared with 3.3% in 2021.

Despite concerns about teenagers taking up products, this week the government announced plans for 1 million smokers to swap cigarettes for vapes. Under the new “swap to stop” scheme, e-cigarette starter kits will be offered to almost one in five smokers in England as part of the government’s smoke-free drive.

Pregnant women will also be offered up to £400 to stop smoking, and a consultation will be launched on whether to make mandatory the placing of advice on quitting smoking in cigarette packs.

Current regulations specify that vape tanks have to have a capacity of no more than 2ml and a nicotine strength of no more than 20mg/ml. Any vapes with contents exceeding these amounts are illegal and should not be sold to the public, regulators say.

Inter Scientific examined dozens of brands sold in shops in Newcastle, Birmingham, Hertfordshire, Staffordshire, Dudley, Liverpool and Wales. It showed that many were not following the rules.

Inter Scientific is working with Trading Standards to tackle the sale of illicit products, which are flooding high street stores. More than 1.4 tonnes of illegal vapes were seized in the last six months of 2022 in the north-east of England alone.

David Lawson, chief executive at Inter Scientific and a fellow of the Organisation for Professionals in Regulatory Affairs, said: “We have seen a large increase in the number of illegal vape products being seized by trading standards and sent for analysis. Though these products don’t pose an immediate health risk, they are circumventing UK regulation.”

Their product testing showed Dr Gorilla King Blackcurrant Grape Slush, which says it is nicotine-free, actually had 19.7mg/ml of stimulant. Vape With a Bang Havana Tobacco’s 6% disposable device had the highest nicotine content, 29.35mg/ml, far above what is allowed in law. The Guardian was unable to track down the suppliers of these vapes for comment.

Vapes must display the manufacturer’s details as well as a list of ingredients and relevant health warnings. None of the e-cigarettes Inter Scientific studied were listed in the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. They should be listed so that any harm associated with them can be logged. Data shows that the MHRA received 40 reports of harmful reactions associated with e-cigarettes in 2022, up from 24 the year before.

The government has allocated £3m in funding to tackle the sale of illegal vapes. It wants to run further test purchases and remove banned products from shops and at borders. The government will also launch a call for evidence to “identify opportunities to reduce the number of children accessing and using vapes”, according to plans unveiled this week.

John Herriman, chief executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said it continued “to be concerned about the vast amount of illegal and non-compliant vapes available for sale and would urge manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers to do more to ensure the products they are selling comply with all of the regulations”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “It is illegal to sell vapes to children or vapes that break our clear rules, and just this week we announced a new ‘illicit vapes enforcement squad’ backed by £3 million to take further action.

“The squad will have the powers to disrupt illicit supply, undertake test purchasing and testing of products, and will share knowledge and intelligence across the country.

“We will not tolerate the sale of illegal products and will take necessary actions to remove them from shelves and stop them from crossing our borders.”

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