E-cigarettes, vaping and e-shisha

Vaping devices such as e-cigarettes, shisha pens and e-shisha products are becoming increasingly popular, particularly for smokers wishing to quit traditional tobacco products.

The devices vaporise a liquid containing a solvent, chemical flavourings and nicotine. This vapour is then inhaled by the user via a disposable or re-usable ‘pen’ or ‘stick’. The vaporisation is achieved by a heated element powered by a battery. Re-usable devices are usually larger and can be re-charged via a USB connection or separate charger. The disposable devices may be shaped like a cigarette and use and LED which lights up when the device is sucked.

It is illegal to sell nicotine inhaling products to anyone under the age of 18. This includes cartridges and refills containing nicotine

There have been concerns that e-shisha products are packaged and branded in a way which appeals to children. The sticks are typically formulated with sweet smelling chemicals that create enticing flavours such as strawberry, apple and popcorn.

Some products are marketed as ‘nicotine free’, and therefore will not be subject to age restrictions, however many responsible retailers will not sell to children. Experts tend to agree that children should be discouraged from using any vaping device as the long term risks to health are unknown and there are concerns over whether the products act as a gateway to smoking.

Trading Standards and Fire Fighting services have also found problems with the electrical safety of the devices – especially the chargers supplied with them and some re-chargeable batteries.

What are e-cigarettes and e-shisha products?

They both consist of devices that vaporise a liquid containing a solvent, chemical flavourings, and nicotine, which is highly addictive. Nicotine free liquids are available though. This is where the term' vaping' has originated from.

The vapour is then inhaled by the user. The vaporisation is achieved by a heater element which may be powered by a disposable or re-chargeable battery. This is all contained in either a disposable or re-usable ‘pen’ or ‘stick’.

The re-usable devices tend to be larger and are designed to be re-charged, via an adaptor of  USB port. They can be re-filled with a huge variety of ‘e-liquids’ or ‘e-juice’ products

The disposable devices typically resemble a cigarette like tube with a small LED that lights when the device is sucked to activate it and start the process of heating and vaporising the liquid.

Nicotine free e-shisha products often appear to be marketed directly at young people through the way they are being formulated, packaged, branded and priced. The sticks are typically formulated with sweet smelling chemicals that create fruit flavours such as strawberry, apple, peach or grape. They are packaged in attractive brightly coloured tubes with youth appealing brand names.

The law

The following requirements apply to devices and liquids containing nicotine or that can be used with nicotine.

  • Producers and importers of devices capable of containing nicotine and liquids containing nicotine must register them with a government agency before they are placed on the market.
  • Vaping devices and liquids must be supplied with an information leaflet with prescribed safety instructions, warnings and EU based contact details - the leaflet must include a statement that the product is not recommended for use by young people and non-smokers
  • Liquids that contains nicotine must be in either a dedicated container with a maximum 10ml volume or, for disposable single use e-cigarette cartridges, in a tank that has a maximum 2ml volume
  • The liquid containers in devices and refills must be child-resistant, tamper-evident and be protected against breakage and leaking
  • The concentration of nicotine is restricted to 20mg/ml, unless the product is a registered medical device, and  additives including colouring, caffeine and taurine are banned

Labellings and warnings which must be present

  • Each pack and container must be labelled in a prescribed format and size with the statement 'This product contains nicotine which is a highly addictive substance'
  • Ingredients listed in descending order of weight
  • A batch number
  • Nicotine content of the product and the delivery per dose
  • A recommendation to keep the product out of reach of children

Electrical safety and age restrictions

  • Electrical products must comply with safety regulations and mains chargers must only have approved UK 3 pin plugs
  • The sale of nicotine inhaling products to a person aged under 18 is prohibited
  • Adults commit an offence if they purchase a nicotine inhaling product for someone under 18

Further information

Product presentation requirements also apply - see Part 6 of the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016

Non nicotine products

Non-nicotine products must comply with electrical and general product safety requirements. Depending on their ingredients they may also be subject to other health and safety and labelling requirements. There is no current age restriction on their supply but it is generally considered best practice to restrict sales to persons who are 18 years old and over.

So what are the health risks?

It is acknowledged that e-cigarette and vaping products, manufactured and supplied to legally regulated standards, could be useful as an aid to help people stop smoking real tobacco products. However there are still potential risks with what is available on the market.

  • Nicotine is a poison - a tiny amount, less than one tenth of a gram, is considered to be a potentially lethal dose for an adult. Significantly less can kill a child. This is why child resistant packaging is mandatory.
  • Chemical contaminants - These devices allow a vapour of solvent and chemicals to be inhaled directly into the lungs. This may be safe using correctly formulated products, made by licenced manufacturers using pharmaceutical grade materials. However, products of unknown origin may contain contaminants and potentially harmful chemicals not intended for this use
  • Traceability - it is vital to know who manufactured and/or imported a product so that they can be traced if there is any safety problem and held accountable. Many zero nicotine products do not carry such details
  • Electrical safety - devices produced cheaply are unlikely to comply with electrical safety standards. There could be a risk of fire, electric shock or damage to the devices they are connected to
Advice for parents and users

Although new regulations now apply to e-cigarettes containing nicotine there is still uncertainty as to how safe vaping is, for example, in terms of exposure to the various chemical compounds found in the solvents, flavourings and other chemicals used in the liquids - it is a misconception that users are just inhaling water vapour.

  • Nicotine is a powerful poison - there's a specific risk of death to young children who come into contact with ‘e-liquids’ containing nicotine, and certain warning labels must be present and containers must be child resistant.
  • Young children are naturally inquisitive and will copy adult behaviour, so take the same precautions as with household cleaners, liquitabs and medicines and keep well out of the reach of children
  • Parents or carers of under 18s shouldn't allow children to use e-cigarettes or e-shisha
  • Schools shouldn't permit such products on their grounds and should discourage their use

Research published in October 2014 by London Trading Standards found that claims about products being nicotine free were not always justified. In addition although food grade flavouring chemicals may be safe to eat this does not automatically mean they would be safe to be used in vaping devices. A variety of  undesirable compounds that could be harmful to health were found to be present in e-liquids.

Since the report new regulations governing e-devices and liquids containing nicotine have come into force but non-nicotine liquids, or 'zeros' are not subject to the same controls. It is these products that may be more appealing to children.

Ban on sales to children

From 1st October 2015 the sale of nicotine inhaling products to persons aged under 18 was prohibited. This includes cartridges and refills containing nicotine as well as devices intended enable nicotine to be inhaled through a mouth piece (regardless of whether the device is also intended to enable any other substance to be inhaled through a mouth piece).

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