Swedish Consumer Agency scrutinises vape shops - "Difficult to do the right thing"

Do shops selling e-cigarettes comply with the law? During the winter, the Swedish Consumer Agency investigated Swedish vejpshoppers and their online marketing.
"Unfortunately, we see many violations," says Linda Halvarsson, a lawyer at the Swedish Consumer Agency.

Since 2018, it is forbidden to advertise products that are regulated under the the law on tobacco and similar products. And according to this, virtually all marketing prohibited, whether it be adverts in newspapers and social media or banners on your own website. The ban covers everything from nicotine, mods and tanks, but in some cases also products that are not directly regulated - such as nicotine-free shortfills. According to the Consumer Agency, advertisements and banners for nicotine-free e-juices are therefore often problematic.

"It is, for example, permitted to have an advert, or so-called banner, pointing to a shortfill without nicotine. But if you can buy a nicotine shot on the same page via a click, it falls under the legislation. So it is not ok" says Linda Halvarsson, a lawyer at the Swedish Consumer Agency.

Reviewed 24 websites

This is very common, she says. Therefore, when the agency examined 24 shops, it was the banners for nicotine-free juices - shortfills - that attracted the most attention. 

"Because there are so few products that can be commercialised, companies are always on the edge. This is understandable. But we want to draw their attention to the fact that we actually scrutinise each procedure individually. And if it turns out that a clickable banner can be linked to the purchase of a regulated product, then it is not authorised marketing," says Ms. Perez. Linda Halvarsson.

Tasteful descriptions wrong

Just last year, the company was convicted EcoSwe for violating several laws in its marketing activities. The judgement was appealed, but in addition to banners and texts designed to attract branded purchases, the company was criticised for excessive value-laden descriptions of the products. Product descriptions are also something the Consumer Agency has looked at in its review. 

'Unfortunately, we find many colourful and emotional descriptions. Descriptions of taste should be restrained and factual and should not contain value words. This also applies to technical devices. It's ok to explain how it works, but you have to distinguish between that and "opinions" about the device" says Linda Halvarsson

Easy to add nicotine

The Consumer Agency assesses on a case-by-case basis whether or not a flavour description of a nicotine-free e-juice is allowed.

"If the idea is to fill it with a nicotine shot, it falls under the regulations. We often see that a page at first glance is about an unregulated e-juice, but that by scrolling through a menu it can be ordered with nicotine. This is not ok." says Linda Halvarsson.

An art of doing the right thing

The difficult-to-navigate regulatory framework, and the lack of legal practice, has turned product descriptions into a kind of abstract art. According to Christian Brandtwho runs the company Light Your Fire. The family business sells e-cigarettes and e-juice in some physical stores, but also online.

"The question is how to describe a mod or tank, for example, without 'liking' it? It becomes very technical and boring. How will an 80-year-old lady a hundred miles away 'understand' how a device works and 'feels' if we can't tell it in our own words from our perspective?" says Christian Brandt to Vejpkollen.

"Dare to disagree"

Christian Brandt has become used to having discussions with the Consumer Agency. And he believes that vejpshoppers should not be afraid to do so.

"We have had disputes about some texts on the website where we provide information about what vejpning is, how it affects health and how the technology itself works. The Consumer Agency saw this as advertising and demanded that we remove it from the site. We said no on the grounds that it is necessary information for those who buy our products. And then we finally got to keep it." says Christian Brandt.

Allowed to inform and form opinion - sometimes

According to Lena Halvarsson, it is allowed to have texts that inform about how the technology works on the website. It is also ok to form an opinion. But each text and image is judged on its own merits.

"It's all about the purpose and function of the text. We look at each individual case and make a judgement. Is the text linked to a product? Can the text lead to a purchase? And so on. It is important that companies clearly distinguish between information texts and marketing."

Don't want to bust companies

However, she says that the Consumer Agency is not looking to report companies in the first place. The purpose of the review is to give everyone a chance to understand and comply with the law. 

"We think dialogue is important. Now we want to give companies a small window of opportunity to change obvious mistakes and avoid them in the future. Primarily, we want them to change themselves without us having to make a legal issue out of it," says Mr Perez. Linda Halvarsson.

No social media audit - yet

The Consumer Agency's review has so far focused on the companies' own websites. The agency has not yet looked at the companies' presence in social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.

"But we want to take a holistic approach and are constantly monitoring the world around us. It is not impossible that we will be looking at social media quite soon too" says Linda Halvarsson.

The Consumer Agency expects to follow up on the review shortly in the spring.

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