It’s a Monday morning and the latest lorryload was seized the Friday before, part of a coordinated operation with UK Border Force that has been in place since late 2022, when the black market in illegal devices erupted.
Thousands of illegal vapes are being brought into the country, made in China and entering Kent via the Port of Dover, Eurotunnel and a parcel hub at Dartford. Last year, more than a million were examined at those portals with half of them seized.
This team is on the frontline, intercepting and disrupting the criminal networks for whom this has proved a lucrative enterprise, many who are hiding behind ghost addresses and fake company names. Their business model probably includes the acceptance they will lose an amount to the authorities, responding to the demand as it currently stands.
Intelligence-led, the cargo cannot be taken at face value. Remove the first couple of layers and the illegal boxes are soon revealed.
Vapes are illegal if they contain any amount of nicotine and the tank capacity is more than 2ml. They are also illegal if the nicotine strength is more than 2%.
With the UK industry standard at 600 puffs, some of these are at 15,000 - and not necessarily the better ‘puff for your pound’ that might be a perception when strength claims on packaging simply cannot be trusted.
They are getting bigger but no less dangerous with a cocktail of unknown ingredients, from highly toxic nicotine levels to heavy metals, combined with the distinct possibility unchecked battery devices have a nasty habit of exploding and catching fire.
And most are designed to catch the eye of a young person with novelty shapes, bright colours and ‘fun’ flavours.
Principal KCC Trading Standards Officer Oli Jewell said: “When you see the pallet-loads in person like this, it is absolutely shocking. And the fact they keep on coming means that obviously there are others that are making it into the UK. We see that when we are out doing our retail inspections - we are seeing it in the shops and we are seeing them available online as well.”
“What we’ve done with disposable vapes is addicted a whole new generation of non-smokers to nicotine.”
Kent is leading the way in its approach and it is three-fold – at the border, in the laboratory and on the high street in step with legitimate industry bodies.
An hour away is Kent Scientific Services, a KCC owned facility that has been operating for more than 100 years in one guise or another. Its work includes tests on food stuffs, cosmetics - and vapes, developing a trailblazing technique that was showcased to the Prime Minister when he visited the site last year. This is assisting Trading Standards colleagues across the country with their work.
Today the place wreaks of strawberry, bubble gum, candy floss; it’s hard to determine but it is heady. A vape has been cracked open. It’s called Mr Pink.
Interim Head of Community Protection at KCC Mark Rolfe said: “It is a growing concern. There are thousands and thousands of illegal vapes coming into the country and a lot of them through Kent. We’ve got a really good team here sorting that out, but the market is huge and the market has expanded well beyond the public health use of a vape to help someone quit smoking.
“What we’ve done with disposable vapes is addicted a whole new generation of non-smokers to nicotine so should we be concerned? Yes absolutely. Are we doing plenty about it in Kent? Yes.”
In October, a new trio was recruited. Joint funded by Trading Standards and Kent’s Public Health team, the vape compliance team’s role is a proactive one, building relationships with retailers, explaining everything to consider with sales and the reasons to resist illegitimate products.
And they are not just visiting newsagents - the cost of living crisis has led other businesses to diversify into vapes thinking they are a quick win and the team has found them in the most unusual of places, from a florists to a butcher’s shop.
Head of Kent Trading Standards Steve Rock said: “We’ve got issues with retailers who have never sold age-restricted products before. This team is going out and working with retailers, educating them and making sure they understand all the implications. They are buying product, not necessarily knowing if it is legal or illegal. They may be displaying them in a way that makes it easy for children to get hold of. If they are refusing sales, how are they recording that?
“We work with them on Challenge 25 - that involves sending in a volunteer who is over 18 to act as an audit to see whether someone just over that age will actually be asked for I.D. And then if we find problems, we can talk to the businesses. Illegal vapes have also been seized – we took nearly 20,000 off the streets of Kent last year.
“This team has come in and taken the pressure off our other officers with what is a never-ending task.”
This week: The government has announced plans for an outright ban on disposable vapes.
Kent’s Deputy Director of Public Health Ellen Schwartz said: “There’s lots in this announcement to welcome, particularly the backing for a ban on disposable vapes, which KCC called for.
“While vaping can play a role in helping adult smokers to quit, children should never vape. Public Health and Trading Standards teams will now be going through the detail of the Government's response to assess what it could mean for frontline services and to agree next steps.”
If you have any concerns about vapes being sold in your community, please email the vape team who want to hear from you. The address is: email@example.com
See Mark Rolfe talking more on the subject here: Dangers of Disposable Vapes - Kent Scientific Services - Product Safety Matters (youtube.com)
The Mr Pink disposable vape contained nicotine at a strength of a fraction over 1%, which is half the legal limit. As it contained around 10ml of liquid it is an illegal product. It was also described on the packaging as being 2% (which is common) and this is another potential offence, of misdescription.