RRW roundtable 2022

Independent retailers are urging more information on the growing vape category to help combat the illicit trade.

RRW 2022 JTI logo

At a roundtable with top retailers and representatives from JTI as part of Convenience Store’s Responsible Retailing Week, participants said both they and their customers need more information on the vaping category as the illicit trade grows.

Retailers involved said they had been offered and asked for vape products that aren’t compliant with UK legislation on a regular basis with one store owner said it’s a weekly occurrence to be asked for illicit product while another is offered it on an almost daily basis.

Nishi Patel of Londis Bexley said retailers are in the position of having to educate consumers about the category and what is legal and illegal. “We get a lot of customers asking if we sell the vapes with 3,500 puffs and we have to explain to them that they’re illegal. We know other places in the area do but we refuse to sell anything illicit. Every vape product I buy has an invoice and is all above board but you get a lot of people offering it out of vans for cash.”

Bobby Singh of BB Nevison agreed that education was vital for the category. “When someone comes into our store asking for vapes with a higher number of puffs, they have to be explained to that they’re illegal, and it falls to us to have to do that. Some customers genuinely don’t realise that they’re illegal in the UK and they need better education on the subject.”

Go Local Extra retailer Sasi Patel said the market is flooded with illicit products and something needs to be done about it. “There’s probably more illicit stock available than legal in the vape sector right now. The vaping associations [UKVIA] is calling for a licence for selling them which I’m all for as that’ll make it clear who is following the rules and who isn’t.”

He says the lack of implication on a store’s licence if they’re caught selling illicit vape products is another factor. “Even if Trading Standards raid your store, more than likely, they’ll just take your stock and that’s it. There’s no impact on your licence.” 

Sasi added that he has been deterred from reporting illicit vape products being sold in his area because of the time it takes and the lack of action on the part of his local Trading Standards team.

Trudy Davies of Woosnam & Davies News also expressed frustration with the lack of action, particularly if the Trading Standards team is scrutinising her business. “I used to report illicit trade on a regular basis but nothing seemed to be done. I’d see stores raided and then re-open two weeks later with a new owner but they’re still selling illicit product. Meanwhile when Trading Standards are in my store, they’re telling me I can’t use the term ‘Cornish Pasties’ because my pasties weren’t made in Cornwall!

Despite her pasties coming under attack, Trudy is in favour of more visits. “I understand that Trading Standards are busy but if that’s their priority rather than what a 15-year-old may be vaping, that’s very frustrating.”

She also called for more point of sale material to help make customers aware of the legislation around vaping, and what is compliant.

 The retailers also called out the category for the flavours that some brands use and that they’re attracting under-age users. 

“I see a lot of kids in school uniforms using vapes and while they haven’t bought them at our stores, it’s growing more and more among that age group – I think a big issue in this is the flavours,” said Nishi. “They can get flavours like pink lemonade, cola that attract that age group.”

Trudy echoed this sentiment: “The flavours have become too much, they’re almost collectible at this stage and they don’t even look like vape pens, they look more like highlighter pens that school children could put in their pencil cases and teachers wouldn’t notice.”

 Nishi added that there’s too much disparity between councils when it comes to responsible retailing. “London Borough where one of my stores is, promotes Challenge 25 while Dartford Borough doesn’t give us any information on underage sales. From a support point of view, they’re worlds apart.

While illicit cigarettes have taken somewhat of a backseat to vaping, Nishi says one of his stores still gets offered products. “We’ve never touched them, you can lose your reputation from selling a pack of fags for £2 cheaper – it’s just not worth it.”

Nishi added that some retailers may be tempted, especially if the cost of business is rising. “A lot of shops are coming upon hard times – the price of everything is increasing and they may be thinking that going down the illicit route is the way to keep themselves afloat.”

He said that more regulation is likely once the government realises it could be a revenue generator. “At the moment, the government isn’t taxing the vape category like they are cigarettes but they’ll clock on eventually. They’ll realise they could make a lot of money from vaping and that’s when the red tape will come in and they’ll invest more money in its enforcement.”