A loophole allowing retailers to give free samples of vapes to children in England will be closed, ministers pledged.
Selling e-cigarettes to under-18s is illegal, but the Government said it was acting in the wake of a surge in the use and promotion of cheap vapes designed to appeal to young people. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) pointed to recent NHS figures for 2021 that showed 9% of children aged 11-15 used e-cigarettes, which was an increase from 6% in 2018.
The latest move follows a recent disclosure that some vapes confiscated at a school in Worcestershire were found to contain high levels of lead, nickel, and chromium.
Announcing the crackdown, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was "deeply concerned about the sharp rise in kids vaping and shocked by reports of illicit vapes containing lead getting into the hands of school children".
The Independent British Vape Trade Association welcomed the move. Its chief executive officer, Gillian Golden, said: "The loophole allowing free samples to be distributed regardless of consumer age is a gap that no self-respecting business should ever have considered exploiting."
The Government also announced it would review of the rules on fines for shops selling vapes to under-18s which could see Trading Standards given powers to issue on-the-spot fines and fixed penalty notices more easily. It would aim to complement existing fine and penalty procedures, and where possible cover both illegal and underage sales for vapes and tobacco, the DHSC said.
The Department of Health and Social Care recently allocated £3 million for an 'illicit vapes enforcement squad', led by Trading Standards, that would conduct test purchases at vape shops and convenience stores and promote regulatory compliance.
Ministers also announced a review into whether to ban retailers from selling nicotine-free vapes to people under 18 years. An additional measure would see the health risks associated with vaping included for the first time in relationships, sex, and health education lessons as part of an ongoing review of the curriculum, it said.
Last week it was reported that brightly coloured 'highlighter vapes' collected from a school in Kidderminster and tested in a laboratory contained lead levels two-and-a-half times the stipulated safe exposure limits. The investigation by BBC News also found levels of nickel and chromium exceeded safe levels, whilst some of the e-cigarettes also contained carbonyls.
The recently published Action on Smoking and Health Smokefree survey found that 11.6% of British children aged 11-17 had tried vaping 'once or twice', in 2023, compared with 7.7% last year, and 5.6% in 2014. The survey also suggested that 3.7% of children in this age group were regular users of e-cigarettes – up from 3.1% in 2022. Wanting to 'give it a try' was cited by 40% of those who had vaped, while 19% said they had joined in because others used e-cigarettes, and 14% said they liked the flavours.
Professor Sir Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said: "Whilst vaping can be an effective quitting tool for smokers, it is important that non-smokers are not encouraged to start vaping. There has been a particularly worrying rise in the number of children using vapes, with companies clearly marketing these products at children using colours, flavours, and cheap disposable options."