Shahid Razzaq is National Vice President of the Federation of Independent Retailers.
It is illegal to sell tobacco and vapes to under 18s. However, many young people are obtaining vapes from unorthodox sources where there is vague or non-existent compliance with the law – cafes, take-away shops, hair salons, car boot sales, and tanning salons are some of the outlets.
That is in addition to deliveries by dealers to the home or street corner, 30 metres from the school gate.
These rogue sales are the ones most likely to take place regardless of the buyer’s age. They are also most likely to contain dangerous, illegal levels of toxic chemicals, most commonly from companies in the Far East.
If enforcement under the legislation stemming from the new consultation (‘Creating a smoke-free generation and tackling youth vaping’) is not well enough thought through, young people are likely to continue to procure vapes in the booming black market. Cigarettes are also a feature of illicit sales outlets, and it is organised crime gangs who are usually at the core of this trade. Tobacco smuggling means the public purse, struggling to fund important public services, loses over £2.8bn in tax and duty revenue each year.
It is a source of frustration to our members running newsagents and convenience stores that there are too few trading standards officers to tackle effectively this crime, which blights communities.
The Government plans an additional £30m a year from April 2024 to tackle illicit trade and underage sales. That is spread across three agencies: Trading Standards, Border Force and HMRC. Will this really be enough to make a difference? HMRC and Border Force have strategic plans to target illegal activity at all stages of the supply chain. Will these plans really be well enough resourced?
The consultation document proposes that local authorities have powers to issue on-the-spot fines of £100 or £200. It sounds encouraging, but our members fear there won’t be enough enforcement officers to make these happen.
Crucially, there may also be insufficient focus on the rogue outlets where teenagers commonly buy: street corners and at a mate’s home, with deliveries often ordered on social media.
In Scotland, local authorities already have powers to issue fixed penalty notices to retailers and individuals who commit an offence. Freedom of Information enquiries reported by the Herald newspaper in June indicated that in the last two years, some local authorities in Scotland have not done any test purchases of underage vape sales.
Freedom of Information enquiries by STV indicate not one fine was issued in Scotland in the year after it became illegal to smoke on hospital grounds. Local government officials said they did not have the resources to enforce the law.
All four home nations are involved in this consultation; they must make it plain that to prevent young people from taking up smoking or vaping, the level of enforcement needs to change, and that adequate resources for effective support and education campaigns are also key to encouraging more smokers to quit.
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