In the shadow of the United Kingdom's booming vaping industry, a surge in black-market vaping products has taken hold that threatens to undermine the safety and well-being of vapers and expose young people to the dangers of nicotine addiction. As the success of vaping continues to help many people break away from their smoking habit, an alarming abundance of illicit and unregulated products has emerged with dangerous consequences.
With the vaping industry experiencing unprecedented popularity, backed by support from the government and national health authorities, the demand for these smokeless alternatives has skyrocketed. However, the surge in popularity has inadvertently created a breeding ground for a fraudulent market that thrives on exploiting the desire for cheaper alternatives, bypassing the government regulations and oversight that protect the legitimate vaping industry.
At first glance, the black market for vaping products may seem negligible in the larger narrative of the vaping phenomenon. Yet, behind the scenes of the legitimate vaping industry, a web of unscrupulous suppliers and hidden dangers await the unsuspecting vaper. From illicit e-liquids that fail to meet safety standards to counterfeit vaping devices manufactured with little regard for quality control, the risks posed by these substandard and unregulated products are far from trivial.
The consequences of the black market pose a dire health risk. Vapers who turn to the underground marketplace in search of more affordable options unknowingly expose themselves to a host of potential health hazards. With little to no transparency regarding the ingredients, manufacturing practices or quality assurance, these illicit products have the potential to inflict serious harm and tarnish the reputation of the entire industry.
Join us as we navigate the safety regulations and processes put in place to protect consumers' well-being and journey into the murky depths of the black market vaping underworld to shed light on the implications for public health and safety.
Our findings revealed that over 50% of respondents were unfamiliar with the regulatory framework established by the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD)
What are TPD Regulations for Vaping?
In a recent survey conducted by Vape Superstore, we sought to gauge the awareness of our disposable vape customer base regarding the prevalence of black-market vaping products. Our findings of 1381 respondents revealed that:
- 50.3% were unfamiliar with the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) regulations.
- 83% were unaware of the potential health risks associated with illicit disposable vapes.
- 36.4% said black-market vapes were better value for money.
- 34.1% were not aware there was a difference between illicit devices and regulated ones.
These results highlight a critical knowledge gap among consumers, emphasising the need for increased education and awareness campaigns to safeguard consumers' public health and promote informed decision-making within the vaping community.
There are six significant requirements for e-cigarettes that include: (1)
A 20mg or 2% cap on the nicotine strength of any e-liquid.
A 10ml volume limit for nicotine-containing e-liquid.
Tank or pods limited to a maximum capacity of 2ml.
Substances such as diacetyl, caffeine, taurine, and certain colourings have been expressly banned.
Clear nicotine labelling on all vaping devices and e-liquids to enhance transparency.
Meticulous registration of all new e-liquids with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) before they can go on sale.
Disposable Vape Safety
When single-use vape devices burst onto the vaping scene in 2020, they swiftly emerged as unparalleled favourites among consumers, enjoying unrivalled popularity in the market. Adhering to the requirements of the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), these devices were subject to regulations governing their e-liquid capacity, capping it at 2ml. Consequently, each unit offered approximately 600 puffs and a maximum nicotine strength of 20mg. These limitations were put in place to prioritise consumer safety and maintain consistency within the vaping industry.
The past three years, however, have seen an increase in illegal vapes offering 3000 to 5000 puffs per unit and often advertising higher nicotine strengths. The danger lies in the fact that these single use vapes and the e-liquids they contain are not tested, their origin is unknown and there is no guarantee that vendors will carry out age verification. One of the driving concerns around black-market vaping products is that unregulated disposable e-cigarettes are becoming a popular go-to option for under 18’s, with a YouGov survey noting an increase in underage vaping from 7.7% in 2022 to 11.6% in 2023.(2)
Out of the substantial 1,360 individuals who participated in our survey, an astonishing 89% revealed that they had frequently witnessed children engaging in vaping activities. This disconcerting revelation highlights the alarming prevalence of underage vaping within our society. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of 94.4% agreed that further actions and measures must be taken to effectively curtail the sale of vaping products to minors. The urgent call to address this issue reflects a collective recognition of the importance of safeguarding the well-being and health of our young population.
It is important to make a distinction between the legitimate vaping industry and illegal sales. Vaping has garnered widespread recognition as the most effective smoking cessation method available, with the government taking proactive steps to address underage vaping while simultaneously providing free vape kits to smokers through the NHS. Supported by the NHS, Cancer UK, Public Health England and government authorities, vaping stands as a proven, cost-effective, and 95% safer alternative to smoking.(3) Vaping is widely acknowledged as the most successful method for people to stop smoking.(4)However, the unregulated realm of black market vapes, peddled by unscrupulous vendors, poses a threat to consumer safety. Our survey findings reveal that cost is the primary motivating factor driving individuals to purchase black-market vape products, underscoring the pressing need to tackle this alarming issue head-on.
Unregistered e-liquid can contain harmful chemicals such as pesticides and dangerous levels of heavy metals like lead, nickel and chromium
What are Black-Market Vaping Products?
A black market vape is classed as any vape product that bypasses the regulatory requirements outlined by the TPD regulations and fails to meet the quality controls set by the MHRA quality controls, making them potentially hazardous. Black market vape products are distributed through unregulated channels, including physical establishments like off-licences and corner shops, online marketplaces and social media platforms. They encompass vape devices that are cheaply made, with poor wiring and little to no electrical safety features and e-liquids that can be made in someone's kitchen with bulk-bought low-grade base ingredients and whatever additives the manufacturer chooses to throw in. It’s a roll of the dice, you don’t know what you are getting and you are putting your faith in individuals who may have no experience or training and certainly no consideration for your safety.
Anyone desiring to sell vaping products should be prepared for a lengthy procedure as quality control and ingredient transparency is a rigorous process that requires every manufacturer to prove that they have thoroughly tested their devices to make sure that they function safely and that their e-liquids don’t contain any harmful substances and have recognised safety certification.
The procedure for selling a new e-liquid involves registering the product with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), a process that can take up to 6 months before the e-liquid can be sold. When you use a black market vaping product you are putting your faith in someone who is motivated to do the least amount of work at the lowest possible cost.
The difference between black market and TPD-compliant vaping products may not be immediately obvious as the manufacturers will often seek to imitate the design and packaging of successful vape brands in order to cash in on the popularity.
Examples of black-market vaping products can include the following:
Counterfeit or replica vape devices: these illicit devices can be manufactured to replicate a popular brand or design and can seem like the real thing at first glance, however, they are of inferior quality and made with substandard materials and poor wiring. Counterfeit vape devices are not tested, often lacking the prerequisite safety features found in regulated devices that are incorporated by reputable manufacturers to prevent short circuits and mitigate the risk of fire.
Vape kits such as refillable pod kits, disposables and sub-ohm vape kits incorporate a powerful lithium battery alongside a variety of electrical components ranging from smart chips to wiring and battery safety elements, which all need to be tested to ensure they meet the quality and safety standards which are in place to protect the well-being of the end user.
Imitation E-Liquids: Counterfeit e-liquids can mimic popular flavours or registered brands while evading any form of safety testing and quality control procedures. They may be appealing because they contain levels of nicotine greater than 20mg or are in bottles that are larger than the regulated 10ml. The gamble you are taking is that you don’t know what has been put into an unregistered e-liquid, they can contain harmful chemicals such as pesticides and dangerous levels of heavy metals like lead, nickel and chromium.
Cheap, homemade e-liquids can contain any number of illicit and unsafe ingredients.
The base ingredients and flavourings for e-liquids can be purchased in bulk online, often these are of questionable quality themselves and can be made by anyone in an unsterilised and controlled environment, and because they aren't tested and certified you essentially don’t know what you are vaping. Black market e-liquids can also contain extremely high levels of nicotine also of an indeterminate origin and quality.
Bootleg Refill Cartridges: Replica refill cartridges for closed pod systems can be offered by black market sellers as a more affordable alternative to the manufacturer's authorised refills. They can contain e-liquid with poor-quality ingredients and harmful and unknown chemicals and an inconsistent level of nicotine. They may fit the device, but there is no guarantee that what you are vaping is safe.
Modified or Tampered Vape Devices: Black market vendors can provide a device that has been tweaked to remove the regulated safety features, often advertising increased power output in order to produce bigger clouds favoured by sub-ohm vapers. There are well-documented cases in the early days of vaping concerning people suffering severe burns due to their vape devices sparking and catching fire after the battery had been tampered with. Although a much rarer occurrence now, as the majority of users vape to quit smoking and use much lower-powered refillable pod kits, it does highlight the importance of purchasing a legitimate vape kit with all the requisite safety protections.
94% of the customers who took part in our survey said that they thought more should be done to prevent vapes from being sold to children.
Risks Associated with Illicit Vaping Products
The lack of quality control and ingredient transparency poses a significant risk of unregistered e-liquids potentially containing unknown harmful ingredients which can include toxic chemicals and unsafe additives as well as being contaminated with microbes and bacteria from unsterile manufacturing processes.
A recent investigation conducted by the BBC has unveiled alarming findings regarding disposable vapes confiscated from school children. The study revealed significantly elevated levels of heavy metals in their e-liquid, surpassing safe thresholds by alarming margins. Shockingly, the detected levels included up to twice the recommended daily amount of lead and an astounding nine times the acceptable levels of nickel and chromium.(5) This discovery raises serious concerns, as lead is a known neurotoxin capable of impairing central nervous system functioning and hindering brain development. Likewise, exposure to excessive nickel and chromium levels can inflict harm on the lungs and heighten the risk of cancer.
Furthermore, the study unveiled that these black market vapes contained up to 10 times the concentration of carcinogenic chemicals found in cigarette smoke, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. This revelation undermines the perceived health benefits associated with vaping, casting doubt on its potential as a safer alternative to smoking.
Historically there have been vivid accounts of harrowing incidents involving vape devices igniting in users' pockets that have tarnished the reputation of the entire vaping industry. Such incidents primarily arise when individuals tamper with the wiring and safety mechanisms of legitimate vape devices or, more alarmingly, when they purchase illicit and poorly manufactured kits.
Black market vape devices, crafted with an emphasis on minimising costs, employ substandard materials and shoddy wiring, as a result, they bypass the inclusion of advanced electrical safety technologies that reputable manufacturers employ to ensure secure operation. When opting for black market alternatives, users forgo any assurance of possessing vital safety features that established manufacturers diligently incorporate. These critical features include:
Battery Venting: This critical safety mechanism enables the release of gas and pressure in the event of battery failure, preventing potential hazards and reducing the risk of explosion or other serious incidents.
Short-Circuit Protection: A vital safeguard, short-circuit protection detects and prevents excessive current flow that can occur due to a short circuit. By promptly interrupting the circuit, this feature mitigates the risk of damage to the device and minimises potential harm to the user.
Overcharge and Over-discharge Protection: Employed to maintain battery health and longevity. These safeguards automatically cut off the power supply when the battery reaches certain voltage thresholds, preventing overcharging that could lead to battery degradation or over-discharging that may result in damage or poor performance.
Battery Monitoring: An advanced feature that can monitor the battery's performance and provide information about voltage and charge capacity, enabling users to monitor and manage their battery usage effectively.
Despite their outward appearance, black-market vape kits are riddled with severe shortcomings when it comes to the installation of batteries and wiring.These illicit products prioritise minimal functionality, merely ensuring the kit can be switched on and off, adhering to substandard practices to achieve the bare minimum. Consequently, purchasing such black market kits becomes a game of chance, with a significant risk of acquiring a defective device or one with an extremely short lifespan. Ultimately, this gamble fails to save you money and exposes you to potential disappointments and the need for premature replacements.
Nicotine Content and Quality
Illegal disposable vapes and e-liquids can offer higher nicotine strengths that exceed the 20mg TPD limit. A 600-puff disposable vape with 20mg of nicotine is comparable to a pack of 20 cigarettes and is designed to be enjoyed at a pace that would match most smoking habits. Higher nicotine strengths may seem appealing, but there is a risk of adverse effects including nicotine overdose and heightened dependence. This is especially pertinent when considering the impact of vaping on underage minors.
Underage Vaping Risk/Age Verification
At the forefront of underage vaping are disposable vapes which are more accessible to underage individuals and can contribute to an increase in youth vaping and nicotine addiction, which is a critical issue as nicotine exposure increases developmental risks.
Nicotine exposure in adolescents is known to cause a number of short and long-term problems, as a child’s brain is still developing regions involved in impulse control, decision making and attention and nicotine exposure during this growth period can result in long-term cognitive and behavioural problems. There can be significant negative impacts on memory and information retention that can affect learning and have a detrimental effect on academic performance. It can lead to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression as well as leading to lifelong nicotine addiction and an increased risk of substance abuse later on in life.
The sale of any electronic cigarettes and vaping products to minors under the age of 18 has been illegal since October 2015. As with cigarettes and alcohol, all retailers of vaping products are legally required to prevent underage sales. This means that in a face-to-face sale, challenge 25 is implemented by checking a valid ID document. Online retailers carry out Age Verification by engaging an independent agency to check the age of every customer using their full name, address and given date of birth before a purchase can be made.
A 2022 study by the NHS revealed that 18% of 15-year-olds reported regular use of vaping products, the number for 15-year-old girls jumped from 10% in 2018 to 21% in 2022.(6) The spike in underage vaping has recently led the government to set up a trading standard enforcement squad to carry out test purchases in shops in a clamp down on the sale of vapes to underage minors and to seize illegal non-compliant vape products.
The risk black market vaping poses lies in the unscrupulous practices of vendors of these illicit products who peddle their wares in high street stores or in open markets where there are fewer control measures and monitoring and this heightened accessibility to underage individuals has inadvertently fueled the prevalence of youth vaping and nicotine addiction.
How to Avoid Black-Market Vaping Products?
To ensure that you avoid black market vapes, you should purchase exclusively from authorised retailers, such as reputable vape shops and online stores that directly source their products from TP compliant manufacturers and distributors.
The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) offers valuable guidance, advocating for robust measures to uphold the integrity of the vaping industry. These include the imposition of on-the-spot fines of no less than £10,000 per occurrence for individuals caught selling to minors or distributing illegal products, a substantial increase from the previous maximum penalty of £2,500. Additionally, UKVIA proposes the establishment of a retail registration scheme that mandates strict standards for retailers, ensuring adherence to stringent age verification processes.(7)
To further bolster enforcement efforts, a nationwide test purchasing initiative is recommended, aimed at preventing registered retailers from supplying vaping products to underage individuals. This proposed scheme mirrors the successful approach employed by UKVIA with its own members. Encouragingly, Health Minister Neil O'Brien recently announced the adoption of such measures to clamp down on underage sales, signifying a proactive stance against the proliferation of black market vapes.(8),(9)
Check for authenticity. Do your research and find out how you can verify product marker authenticity, look for holographic labels, serial numbers or authenticity codes like QR codes and check the manufacturer's website. TPD-compliant manufacturers employ anti-counterfeiting technology in their packaging that can be used to verify the authenticity of your product. One example is the leading disposable manufacturer Elf Bar. They produce a unique anti-counterfeiting security code with each disposable bar that consumers can use to verify the authenticity of their disposable through Elf Bar’s official website.(10)
You can also access the MHRA register and search vape product manufacturers. Any manufacturers not listed on this register should be avoided.
Look for well-known brands and read reviews and learn what to look out for. There are some obvious red flags like puff counts that exceed the 600 puff average and nicotine strengths in excess of the 20mg limit.
Illicit black market vapes are made in unsterile environments with little regard for health and safety.
Be wary of unusually low prices, we all like to shop savvy, our survey revealed that cost and flavour are the biggest motivators when people shop for a vape, but if it seems too good to be true, double-check the product brand and authenticity. It is just not worth the risk of vaping something of unknown origin that is manufactured with no safety oversight.
Ask. If you are making a face-face purchase, there is nothing wrong with asking the retailer to provide proof of TPD compliance and ask them to show that they can verify that the products they are selling are legal. If they seem unaware of what you are talking about or refuse, you know you are in the wrong place.
For online purchases, you can verify the authenticity of the retailer by scrolling to the bottom of the page where you should find legal documentation that details that cover their TPD compliance and that the appropriate age verification measures are in place. The Trading Standards Authority monitors online retailers of nicotine-containing products to ensure that they are complying with TPD Regulations.
Find a dedicated vape retailer that will be able to offer knowledge and expertise as well as the guarantee that what you are buying is the real thing. Avoid online marketplaces that cater to a wide variety of products. There are certainly bargains to be had at these huge outlets that cater to nearly every need, but this is also where you are most likely to find black market manufacturers and vendors hawking their goods.
Stay informed if vaping is going to become a regular part of your life, it can only benefit you to familiarise yourself with the products you are using and the e-liquids you are inhaling. Educate yourself on the latest regulations and safety guidelines and become familiar with legitimate sales channels and authorised products. There is a robust online community dedicated to authentic, quality products and safe practices backed by industry associations like UKVIA which work closely with policymakers and regulators to promote the benefits of vaping and provide resources and guidance to ensure safe practices and maintain the industry's high standards.
Protected by robust regulatory measures that prioritise consumer well-being, vaping has emerged as a transformative nicotine delivery system, offering a healthier alternative to traditional smoking. With an estimated 2.7 million adult smokers successfully breaking free from the grip of addiction through vaping as of 2022, its efficacy as a smoking cessation tool remains unquestionable.(11)
The impact of vaping as a gateway to a smoke-free life cannot be overstated. By providing a less harmful method of nicotine consumption, regulated vaping products have empowered individuals to reclaim control over their health and break free from the clutches of tobacco addiction. The stringent regulatory framework, established under the guidance of public health authorities, ensures that vaping products meet rigorous safety and quality standards, offering consumers a trustworthy and reliable means to embark on their journey toward a smoke-free future.
As we navigate the complex landscape of the vaping industry, it is crucial to recognise the critical distinction between the regulated market and the illicit black market. The former, championed by scientific research, endorsed by leading health organisations, and supported by government backing, continues to pave the way for smoking cessation success stories. Conversely, the black market poses grave risks, exposing consumers to untested and potentially dangerous products manufactured without regard for safety or quality control.
It is imperative that we remain vigilant in combatting the proliferation of black-market vaping. By fostering awareness, enforcing regulations and supporting authorised retailers, we can protect the progress made in smoking cessation, uphold consumer safety and work towards a future where a smoke-free society becomes a reality for all.
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