The number of illegal vapes seized at the border quadrupled last year as UK authorities wrestle with unlicensed imports amid a surge in youth vaping.
More than 4.5m vapes weighing nearly ten tonnes were seized over the last 12 months, four times more than 2022.
The figures were released to the BBC after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
The government is soon to announce new rules for the industry, including a possible ban on disposable vapes.
The single-use products have surged in popularity since the pandemic. With bright packaging and flavours named after sweets and soft drinks, there have been calls to restrict their marketing to protect children. It is illegal to sell them to under-18s.
Disposable e-cigarettes have strict limits on their nicotine levels in the UK – just 2ml of liquid with 20mg of nicotine per millilitre provide around 500-600 puffs of vapour.
However, Chinese-made vapes which contain much larger amounts of liquid and promise thousands of puffs are widely available in the UK.
On London’s Oxford Street, illegal disposable vapes offering 3,500 puffs are openly on sale. BBC News was also easily able to buy two vapes containing 4.5ml of liquid from two UK-based online retailers.
“They’re out there in broad daylight, in plain view. It is scary how prevalent they are,” said Dan Marchant of the online retailer Vape Club. “People are getting away with it. They are acting with complete impunity.”
Figures released to the BBC in response to an FOI request show that Border Force seized just 4,430 vapes in 2021, rising to 988,064 in 2022, and 4,537,689 from January to October 2023.
Unlike legal vapes, illegal e-cigarettes are not registered with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and do not pass through quality control processes so may contain harmful chemicals.
And retailers prepared to flout product rules may not be scrupulous about observing the ban on selling to under-18s.
A Home Office spokesperson said the government would “not tolerate the sale of illegal products and… harmful goods, such as illegal or counterfeit vapes”.
“Border Force work closely with law enforcement partners to share intelligence and have a strong track record in targeting illicit commodities,” they added.
In most cases, Border Force seizes vapes for breaching product safety rules, though it also seizes fake versions of legal vapes, and shipments which breach customs procedures.
While Border Force is responsible for intercepting vapes coming into Britain from overseas, once they are in the UK the responsibility falls to Trading Standards teams at local councils.
Crackdown on illegal vapes
Last April the government announced £3m for a “crackdown” on illegal vapes and underage sales.
Under Operation Joseph, Trading Standards seized more than one million vapes last year with officers visiting 2,000 retail premises, during which they found evidence 500 were willing to sell to minors.
Meanwhile, Vape Club carried out its own research and sent FOI requests to 389 councils around the UK, asking Trading Standards officers how many vapes had been seized over the past five years.
Among the 152 replies, the total number of seizures had risen from from next to none in 2020, to more than 1.5 million last year.
In Manchester, a hub for both the legal and illegal vape trade, Trading Standards seized 158,000 illegal vapes in 2023, more than a tenfold increase on the previous year.
In 2022, the council and police launched Operation Vulcan, a crackdown on the counterfeit goods trade – bringing in a number of illegal vapes as well as fake luxury goods, prescription medicines and cash.
The council also believes the increased haul is down to increased illegal activity.
The London Borough of Hillingdon, however, which includes Heathrow airport, saw a sharp decline in vape seizures. From 1.35 million in 2022, it confiscated 224,000 last year.
The council said increased enforcement around the airport may have led importers to use other routes.
Meanwhile, Kent County Council told the BBC it had seized over 440,000 vapes at shops and the Channel ports, working together with Border Force.
A disposable ban?
The government is soon expected to introduce new rules to tighten up the market, which could range from an outright ban on disposable vapes to a licencing scheme for retailers and a tax.
Supporters of a tax on the single-use products argue that putting them through the same tightly controlled system as cigarettes and alcohol would help to reduce illegal imports.
But Mr Marchant, and others in the industry, argue that a ban on disposables could lead to a surge in demand for illegal vapes.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the anti-smoking charity Action on Smoking and Health said: “If disposable vapes are banned then Border Force and HM Revenue and Customs will have a much bigger job to do to prevent illegal vapes being imported into the UK, making it even more imperative that there’s a properly thought-through and implemented strategy.”