CTSI has voiced its concerns after the emergence of new evidence that suggests a link between underage vaping and the sexual exploitation of children.
There are reports from several regions across England and Wales that vapes have been supplied to children by shops and other businesses with the intention of grooming them for sexual exploitation. CTSI understands that several live cases are currently under investigation by safeguarding teams and police.
Electronic cigarettes or vapes are considered to be useful in helping smokers quit. However there are concerns that non-smokers, particularly young people, could become regular users of the products, which are sometimes marketed with child-friendly flavours, colours and packaging. In additions, social media platforms such as snapchat and TikTok are being used to promote them.
Organised Crime Groups (OCGs) are capitalising on the popularity of vapes and Trading Standards nationally are working with the police and other agencies to tackle counterfeit and illegal vape products alongside underage sales.
Data from local Trading Standards teams shows a significant increase in the reporting of underage vape sales between 2021 and 2022. While absolute numbers remain low, May 2021 and July 2022 intelligence logs surged by 1,958% and complaints reported to Trading Standards services via Citizen’s Advice increased by 1,367%.
John Herriman, Chief Executive of CTSI, said: “This latest intelligence from local Trading Standards teams suggests that there has been a rapid escalation in vaping products being sold to children, which has been informed by mounting public concerns. While we recognise that vaping may be a useful quitting aid for smokers, we are concerned that there appears to be increasing breaches of the law, with some high street businesses selling these products to young people without age verification checks who are clearly under age, and who should not have access to these products.
“We are shocked to learn of intelligence reports that highly addictive vapes are being supplied and used to help groom children for sexual exploitation. While it is reassuring that these isolated incidents are being investigated by police and safeguarding teams, CTSI urges the public to be vigilant around businesses which may be selling vapes illegally to children and report them to Trading Standards through the Citizen’s Advice Consumer Helpline. We also urge anyone who suspects links around the supply of vapes with grooming and Child Sexual Exploitation to immediately report these suspicions to the police and local authority safeguarding teams.
“This is yet another reason why the work of local Trading Standards is vital – both in protecting the vulnerable from potential harms, while also ensuring that those businesses who don’t comply with the law are punished.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Child Protection, Deputy Chief Constable Ian Critchley, said: “We have seen instances where children have been given vaping products by offenders, with the intention of grooming them for child sexual exploitation. CSE is a form of child abuse where a victim is given something in exchange for sexual activity. Offenders target vulnerable young people and use their power over the child to sexually abuse them.
“A common feature of CSE is that the child or young person does not recognise the coercive nature of the relationship and does not see themselves as a victim of exploitation. This means that they are unlikely to report the abuse so police and partners must be alert to the signs of CSE and actively look for victims.
“Our approach to tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse is always evolving, and there are many examples of innovative police work being done with positive outcomes for victims, and perpetrators being brought to justice. For example, over the past year, a regional network of analysts has been established who capture data nationally, to form a rich picture of trends in child sexual exploitation and abuse. This analysis provides a far more informed responses at national and local level.
“However, we are not complacent, and we recognise there is still more to be done. We are committed to continuing to enhance this area of our work, and valuable research such as this report from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute help us to do this.
“Victims are at the centre of all we do and must never be made to feel that they are at fault for what has happened to them. They can be assured that when they take the hugely difficult decision to report to police, that they will be treated with empathy and respect. From there an impartial and proportionate investigation will follow. I urge anyone who has suffered in this most appalling way, wherever and whenever this was, to come forward if it is the right time for them.”
Tom Crowther QC, who Chaired the Independent Inquiry into Telford CSE and is a member of CTSI, said: “During my work in the Independent Inquiry, it became obvious that one of the most common methods for perpetrators to gain children’s confidence and trust was by befriending them with gifts – ranging from sweets in the 1970s to phone top-ups in the 2000s – and, of course, ‘illicit’ material, that children couldn’t otherwise buy, being very much favoured. I see vapes as very much part of that armoury of gifts and obviously support CTSI’s efforts to bring this potential link to public attention. This shows the crucial importance of a multi-agency approach to investigations and data-sharing and the real need for long term guaranteed funding for proactive investigation work.”