An industry-led licensing scheme for the UK vape industry have been put forward to help tackle the sale of illicit products and underage sales.

The framework follows a comprehensive consultation period over the last six months involving leading figures representing the retail industry, trade bodies, regulatory landscape and consumer groups.

This comes following the revelation that there has been a near 20-fold increase in the number of illicit vapes seized by councils across the UK since 2020. FOI research carried out by Vape Club found more than 1.5 million illegal vapes were confiscated between 152 surveyed councils last year alone.

The proposed scheme would include a ‘self-sustaining’ fee structure as well as governance oversight mechanisms and stringent criteria which businesses would need to meet before qualifying for a licence. It also outlines a fine and penalty system for those who breach the terms of the licence and the conditions under which a licence can be revoked.

The proposals also include a model for wholesalers and distributors with its own fit-for-purpose fee structure and increased penalty amounts to reflect the scale of distributors versus retailers.

Under the framework, to qualify for a licence, retailers will need to show they have put measures in place to prevent the sale of vapes to minors; do not sell nicotine-free vapes to minors; only stock and sell compliant products; operate legally across all areas of the business – i.e., payment of VAT; promote products within the advertising regulations; and meet their environmental obligations. Distributors will also need to ensure they are meeting marketing, environmental and business obligations, as well as ensuring they only stock and sell compliant goods; train staff in the correct handling and storage of vaping products; and do not stock or sell any products which could be deemed as overtly youth appealing.

The plans include a four-strike penalty system with the highest fine being £10,000 for retailers and £100,000 for distributors. Trading Standards would also be given the ability to issue on-the-spot fines. Retailers and distributors caught selling and supplying vapes without a licence would be subject to an immediate fine equal to the maximum penalty amount for licence holders. They will also have all stock seized and would be required to cover the cost of a future inspection. It is estimated that the proposed scheme could generate upwards of £50m per year for enhanced enforcement.

Under the plans, retail licensees would also have to undergo test purchasing exercises at least every six months to ensure they are following youth access prevention procedures, as well as having their stock inspected to ensure the products they sell are registered on the MHRA notified products list and comply with TRPR provisions.

Dan Marchant, co-founder of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) and managing director of Vape Club, which has led on the development of the proposed scheme and conducted the FOI investigation, said: “It doesn’t matter what legislation the government introduces, whether the newly announced ban on disposables or any future restrictions, a robust and balanced licensing system is critical to ensuring the law can actually be enforced and for ushering in a new era of responsibility, accountability and best practice.

“Trading Standards has been calling for ‘more boots on the ground’ and a more joined up ‘national picture’ to deal with the issues of underage and illicit vape sales and there is no doubt that the introduction of prohibitive new measures will make this challenge even harder. The scheme we are proposing is not only self-funding but would be relatively quick and easy to implement and could generate upwards of £50 million in annual funding from retailers alone – this could, in part, be used as a sustainable funding base for enforcement.”

Director general of the UK Vaping Industry Association John Dunne said “action must be taken” on the issue.

“This is an incredibly important and timely piece of work, and one the government should pay careful consideration to if it is serious about its commitment to tackling youth vaping while also working towards a smokefree future and giving adults the best chance of quitting,” he said. “Action must be taken to put an end to underage and illicit vape sales but a ban on disposables will turbo-charge the black market and make illegal vapes more readily accessible to young people, while also outlawing a product which has successfully helped adult smokers move away from and completely stay off cigarettes. Instead, the government must bring the hammer down on rogue traders by ensuring existing laws can be effectively and proactively enforced – this is the blueprint to make that happen.”