The 2024 Illegal Vaping Report

Here at Vape Club, the UK’s largest online vape pod and vape kit retailer, we gathered data from local authorities to shed light on the UK’s illegal vape trade.

Vaping is an incredibly successful smoking cessation tool and is responsible for leading multiple generations away from cigarettes. A recent report by ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), cites that e-cigarettes have helped 30,000 - 50,000 additional smokers to successfully quit each year in England since 2013. That's up to half a million people no longer smoking and this success has led to rapid growth in the vaping industry.

However, government regulation has struggled to enforce legislation regarding the legitimate supply and sale of vaping products, leaving the door open to a black market that’s populated with illicit devices. While legitimate industry retailers source products that have gone through rigorous safety checks, illegal black market devices fail to meet the required safety standards. These illegal vapes are potentially dangerous and their sale funds further criminal activity.

Experts in the vaping industry are urging the government to focus on tackling the illicit vaping trade in 2024. That means bigger fines, stronger enforcement and more illegal vapes being seized.

Our mission here at Vape Club is to:
  • Raise awareness and expose the extent of the issue of illegal vaping products in the UK
  • Outline what’s needed from the government to stamp out the illegal vape market
  • Guide the public on how to identify legitimate retailers

Methodology

To investigate the illegal vape issue in the UK we submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to all local authorities, from which 152 provided data. Data spanned 2019 - 2023 and included the number of illegal vapes seized, the number of illegal cigarette packets seized, the number of sellers who have been caught with illegal vapes, and the fines/penalties issued for these incidents.

Key findings

  • Since 2020, 4.18 million illegal vapes have been seized.
  • In 2023, 1.57 million illegal vapes were seized. Enough for three illegal vapes to be sold every minute in the UK, and taken out of the hands of unscrupulous sellers.
  • The amount of illegal vape devices seized increased 19 times between 2020 and 2023.
  • The data highlights the role airports and seaports are playing as hotspots of activity for the illegal vaping industry. The top three regions in 2023 with the most illegal vapes seized have major import hubs nearby or within them - Kent (281,133), with the Port of Dover; Hillingdon (224,454), with Heathrow airport; and Manchester (158,434), with Manchester Airport and Port of Liverpool – accounting for 42% of the UK’s total.
  • London and Greater Manchester in particular are being targeted by unscrupulous retailers and illegal vape sellers. In 2023, the total number of illegal vapes seized from Greater Manchester and Greater London accounts for 40% of the UK's total, and well over half a million products were taken off the streets.
  • Despite the increased focus on illegal activity, this hasn't led to increased enforcement. While 2,871 sellers were identified as being in possession of, stocking, or selling illegal vapes in the UK in 2023, just 1 in 20 (139) have had fines or penalties issued.
  • Of the London boroughs that responded, 787 sellers were identified as being in possession of, stocking, or selling illegal vapes in 2023. However, only three were fined or issued penalties (0.38%).

Illegal vapes continue to impact the UK

The issue of illegal vapes entering the UK continues to blight the legitimate industry and the public, as enforcement struggles to keep up. Since 2020, over 4 million illegal vapes have been seized.

The majority of illegal products seized have come over in the last two years. Compared to 2020, units of illegal vaping devices seized in 2023 increased by 19 times.

In 2023, over 1.57 million illegal vapes were taken off UK streets. Enough for an unscrupulous retailer to sell three every minute for a whole year.

While it’s positive news that illegal vapes continue to be seized, this action hasn’t resulted in enforcement to deter it from happening. In 2023, just 5% (139) of the 2,871 sellers who were identified as being in possession of, stocking, or selling illegal vapes in the UK, were issued fines or penalties.

Of those that did receive a fine, the average fine amount issued in 2023 was just £2,019.

The legitimate vaping industry is calling for the government to do more to seize illegal vapes as well as deter sellers from the illegal vape trade. This needs to be done through consistent application of issuing fines and penalties, to enforce current legislation. There are also calls for increased fines as a deterrent. Vape Club is working with industry bodies to develop a licensing framework to tackle the illegal vaping issue.

Currently, the maximum fine that can be handed out is £2500 but in reality, the fines given out are much, much lower. We completely welcome the move to allow trading standards to issue on-the-spot fines, but we would like to see those fines increased to at least £10,000 and increase the fine for repeat offenders.

The best deterrent for any crime is the likelihood of being caught and right now that is incredibly low, and rogue retailers are taking full advantage of this. We have to create an environment where there is much more chance of being caught.

We strongly believe that retailers and B2B distribution of the products should be licensed, as this will generate the revenue needed for border force and trading standards to be able to catch a much greater amount of illegal products coming into the country before they hit the shelves.

Dan Marchant, Director of Vape Club

Where are the UK’s illegal vape hotspots?

Airports and seaports are hotspots for the import of illegal vapes. From here the illicit products are distributed to nearby population centres and unscrupulous retailers, putting more Brits at risk.

Regions near Heathrow Airport, Manchester Airport and the Port of Dover are the top three local authorities for the highest number of illegal vaping devices seized. Accounting for 664,021 illegal devices – 42% of the UK’s total.

Greater Manchester is the UK’s illegal vaping hotspot

In 2023, Greater Manchester made up almost a quarter (22%) of the UK’s total number of illegal vapes seized. This is enough for 1 in every 8 people to have an illegal vape in Greater Manchester. Both Manchester and Salford, part of Greater Manchester, ranked in the top five areas of the UK for the highest number of illegal vapes seized in 2023.

  • In Greater Manchester, 347 sellers were caught with illegal vape products in 2023.
  • A little over 1 in every 10 sellers caught in possession of, stocking, or selling illegal vapes in the UK were from the area.
  • Both Bolton and Rochdale, part of Greater Manchester, sit within the top five local areas in the UK for the most sellers caught with illegal vaping products. However, just 55 fines were handed out in 2023 to unscrupulous sellers, all of which from the Salford area.

Bury New Road in Salford, also known as ‘Counterfeit Street’, is a hub for illegal products in the UK. Operation Vulcan was launched in autumn 2022 by the Greater Manchester Police to put an end to Bury New Road’s counterfeit items for good. As such, in 2023, Salford was ranked fifth in the UK for the number of illegal vapes seized (122,214) and first in the UK for the number of fines issued (55).

London one of UK's most prominent illegal vape hotspots

In 2023, over a quarter of a million illegal vapes were seized from London boroughs, including the City of London, making up a fifth of the UK’s total. The majority of illegal vapes seized in 2023 came from the London boroughs of Hillingdon (224,454), Hounslow (16,830) and Westminster (8,790).

  • Of the London boroughs that responded, 787 sellers were caught selling illegal vapes. This indicates that 1 in every 4 sellers caught in the UK were from London, according to this data.
  • In 2023, Westminster had the highest number (520) of identified cases of sellers in possession of illegal vaping products.
  • However, not even 1% (0.38%) of sellers caught in possession of, stocking, or selling illegal vapes in London were fined.
  • Only three penalties or fines were issued in 2023. Two of these fines were issued by Hillingdon, and Tower Hamlets issued the other.

London affected by import gateways

London is surrounded by import hubs - including Heathrow, Gatwick, and Luton airport, as well as the Ports of Dover and London - which are being targeted and used as supply routes by the capital's unscrupulous retailers furthering the illegal vaping epidemic.

  • Kent, including the Port of Dover, was the local authority with the highest number of illegal vapes seized (281,133) in 2023.
  • Heathrow Airport is one of the biggest and most-used airports on the planet. Situated in the London borough of Hillingdon, 224,454 illegal vapes were seized. The authority ranked second in the UK for the number of illegal vapes seized in 2023.
  • Situated between Luton airport and London, Hertfordshire saw 122,214 vape seizures in 2023.

Enforcement to clampdown on unscrupulous sellers

Dodgy retailers aren’t being put off selling illicit vaping products, demonstrating that the current government legislation isn't enough of a deterrent.

The number of sellers caught stocking illegal vaping products has increased year on year since 2020, a 96-times increase since the turn of the decade.

Just 1 in 20 sellers that were caught in possession of, stocking, or selling illegal vapes in the UK were issued fines or penalties.

What needs to change?

The lack of enforcement has helped the vape black market replace the cigarette black market. In 2022, the number of illegal vapes seized overtook the number of illegal cigarette packs. This trend continued in 2023 with over 1.57 million illegal vapes seized – over double the illegal cigarette packs seized in the same year.

The government has enacted and enforced legislation against the illegal cigarette trade, but has neglected to implement similar measures for the illegal vape market. This oversight is alarming and damaging to the public confidence in a smoking cessation device that approximately doubles a smoker’s chance to quit.

Consequently, the unregulated illegal vape trade mirrors the issues prevalent in the cigarette black market, including youth usage, potentially dangerous products, and unregulated retail sales.

Therefore the enforcement and penalties for the illegal vape trade should be as strong as the illegal cigarette trade.

How to spot an illegal vape

It’s clear that vaping is succeeding in aiding smoking cessation, however, this has meant buyers are vulnerable to illegal vapes. To decrease the risk of innocent vapers being exploited by the vaping black market there are tell-tale signs of illegal vaping products to look out for:

  • Volume of e-liquid is over 2ml (not including refillable disposables)
  • Nicotine level is higher than 20mg/ml
  • Poor quality packaging with low-resolution photos or labels
  • Packaging doesn’t show required nicotine warnings
  • Packaging doesn’t display a full ingredient list. These should be visible with allergens highlighted
  • No authentication code or a photocopied fake in its place
  • Device name or labelling in a foreign language

For more information, we recommend you read our how to spot a counterfeit vape guide. If in doubt, never purchase a vape that you think might be a counterfeit – it’s never worth the risk.

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