The third and final day of CTSI’s 2023 Conference began with delegates looking surprisingly sprightly after an evening of celebration and bhangra music at the previous evening’s Awards Dinner. That event saw Trading Standards leaders – including CTSI Chief Executive John Herriman, Chair Tendy Lindsay and incoming Chair James Monroe – strutting their stuff on the dancefloor, with partygoers making the most of a well-earned evening of fun and relaxation in which Trading Standards’ successes over the past twelve months were rightly applauded.
Getting back down to business though, Day 3 kicked off with a plenary session looking at how recently announced Government funding will, under the banner of Operation Joseph, be used to tackle the illicit and underage supply of vapes.
National Trading Standards (NTS) Director, Wendy Martin, was on hand to give an overview of how Operation Joseph will be put into practice, with CTSI Joint-Lead Officer for Vaping, Marsha Bell, following up with some insights gained from her practical experience of tackling illicit vapes on the front line.
Operation Joseph, which stems from April’s announcement of £3m in funding for Trading Standards in the fight against illicit vapes, should come into action in August. Martin was keen to stress that resources will be focused exclusively on enforcement and compliance, rather than public health concerns.
Making that £3m go far enough to effectively tackle a problem on the scale of illicit vapes will be a challenge but, as Martin said, “if the Government comes offering money to Trading Standards, we will say ‘yes, we can deliver’.”
“It will help us build an the evidence base around what’s going on nationally,” Martin added.
The strategy behind Operation Joseph will emphasise intelligence and data, with potential work areas including building a better understanding of the links between illicit vapes and other forms of criminality; aligning Trading Standards’ work with that of other agencies such as the ASA; a programme of online test purchasing; business education; intervention at ports; and support for local authorities with costs associated with the storage and disposal of illicit vapes.
Particular obstacles to be overcome, Martin said, include a present lack of clarity around the involvement of other agencies at ports and borders.
Operation Joseph will be coming into action “fairly shortly”, Martin confirmed. “I hope you’ll agree that working together, with what you’re already doing locally, will help us to build something a bit more robust going forward and hopefully secure increased funding for local authorities to do more work on this issue.”
Bell began her presentation by highlighting how up until now, the somewhat disjointed approach to enforcement has made the fight against illicit vapes more difficult for local Trading Standards teams. “Everyone has been looking at this from a different perspective,” she said. “As Trading Standards teams, we have to look at it all together.”
Bell and her team at Salford Trading Standards have, like many across the country, seen a surge in illicit vapes and vaping liquids over the past few years. So far in 2023, in Salford alone more than 30,200 e-liquids and 13,000 disposable vapes have been seized from 13 separate premises. Of these, more than 1,000 are suspected counterfeits.
Counterfeiting is a growing problem, Bell pointed out, with vape brands themselves, as well as other brands outside the vaping space such as confectionery and soft drinks, now being targeted.
The deliberate targeting of children and young people is also apparent, with child-appealing brands such as Prime energy drinks and Disney cartoon characters being illegally copied.
Bell gave a summary of some of the test results from vapes seized by her team, with many products containing significantly more than the legally permitted nicotine limit.
She also discussed how Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) investigations can be a powerful weapon in the fight against persistent sellers of illicit vapes, and drew attention to the often angry and obstructive response from some illicit vape retailers when they are confronted with the consequences of their actions.
The question-and-answer session which closed out the plenary also looked at how persistent problem sellers can be brought to book, with closure orders being mentioned as among the weapons in Trading Standards’ arsenal.
Food for thought
Elsewhere on Day 3, a Masterclass on food standards hosted by CTSI Chair Tendy Lindsay and CTSI Joint Lead Officer for Food, David Pickering, gave attendees an opportunity to hear from experts about ongoing work to close loopholes around food labelling and descriptions. Among the topics under discussion was plant-based and vegan food, which is the subject of a forthcoming CTSI policy paper.
Pickering drew attention to the need for legislation to keep pace with innovation, as well as the necessity for Trading Standards Officers to contribute to discussions with organisations such as the Food Standards Agency and the National Food Focus Group.
In a passionate presentation, Jessica Merryfield from Nottinghamshire Trading Standards spoke about the importance of ensuring that consumers with allergies are safeguarded by accurate food labelling. Merryfield’s particular focus on animal-derived allergens present in supposedly vegan food has been a central theme of CTSI’s policy paper, along with emerging issues such as ‘vegan-washing’ – in which brands make misleading or inaccurate claims about the environmental or ethical benefits of their products.
The next generation
CTSI Conference 2023 closed with an inspiring speech from NTS Chair Lord Michael Bichard, in which he spoke about the need for Trading Standards to make its message resonate with a wider audience: “Our message needs to be couched in language ordinary people understand,” he said.
Lord Bichard also drew attention to the opportunity that Trading Standards currently has to get its point across to those in a position to change things: “Your work is far more important than most people, including politicians, realise,” he said. “It’s about protecting the public and businesses from fraud, from unfair trading, from scams, fake goods and fake products.
“There’s never been a time when your work has been more important, with some of the most vulnerable in our society standing to lose money they can ill afford. As you go away from this Conference, just remind yourself that what you do matters.
“This is a moment when a lot of thinking is being done,” Lord Bichard added, in reference to a potential change of administration next year. “This is the moment when people are lobbying to good effect, not in the month before an election. We need to get our message across, not just to the opposition, but to Government.”
Students from Phoenix Collegiate in West Bromwich took to the stage – along with CTSI Director of Policy and External Affairs, Duncan Stephenson, wearing a shark outfit – to perform a rap about the dangers of loan sharks. The enthusiastic response from the audience marked a fitting conclusion to an inspirational and lively Conference which won praise from all in attendance.