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The rules on nicotine in e-liquids: a useful guide to TRPR now that the UK has left the EU

The rules on nicotine in e-liquids: a useful guide to TRPR now that the UK has left the EU

John Boughey |

Last fact-checked 15 January 2021 | Report a factual error on this article

Ever wondered why — when you’re buying your shortfill e-liquid — you have to buy nicotine separately? It’s all down to the UK’s e-cigarette laws. This week, we’ll explain the basics of the UK and EU laws on e-cigarettes and nicotine. We’ll also take a look at the likely impact of rule changes on your e-liquid choices in the future, and explain some of the risks involved in vaping nicotine. 

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All about the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD)

The Tobacco Products Directive (2014/40/EU) is a law that came into force across the European Union in May 2017. Commonly known as the TPD, this law covers the sale, manufacture and use of all types of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and e-liquids footnote 1.

Sections 6 and 7 of the TPD cover vaping — they’ve been written to ensure minimum safety standards across Europe, protect children from taking up vaping and keep consumers fully informed of their nicotine intake and the health risks of nicotine consumption. The TPD is the reason why pre-mixed e-liquids containing nicotine are never available in bottles larger than 10ml. It’s also why you’ll never find nicotine boosters in strengths exceeding 20mg/ml. 

Most vapers in the UK will refer to the TPD when they’re talking about UK vaping laws, but the UK is technically covered by its own separate set of laws, called the Tobacco & Related Products Regulations 2016 (TRPR for short).

TPD versus TRPR: What’s the difference?

There’s a mistaken belief that the UK’s vaping laws (TRPR) are harsher or more strict than the EU’s (TPD). This simply isn’t the case — the two laws are very similar. When you read both laws and compare the contents of both documents, line for line, you’ll find that the laws are almost identical footnote 2

Whether you’re buying e-liquid on your summer holidays in an EU member state or buying direct from a UK e-liquid shop like Gourmet E-Liquid, you can rely on these shared standards:


UK and EU rules on e-liquids and e-cigarettes:

10ml limit on e-liquid bottles containing nicotine
2ml limit on e-cigarette tanks (e-liquid reservoir)
20mg/ml maximum nicotine strength in an e-liquid
Child-proof bottles and packaging on e-cigarettes & e-liquids
Ban on adding colourings, caffeine and taurine to e-liquid
E-cigarettes and e-liquids must be registered with health authorities
Emissions testing on all e-liquids and e-cigarettes
Health warnings on packet and packaging
New products wait 6 months before going on sale
Emissions testing on all e-liquids and e-cigarettes

These rules are written with safety in mind, which we understand, but in an ideal world we would like to be able to sell larger bottles of vape juice to our customers, with the nicotine already pre-mixed. It would cut down on packaging waste, and it would make it easier for customers. There’s a small chance that, now that the UK has left the EU, the laws might change … but it’s a long shot.

TPD and Brexit

The TPD is an EU law, but we're not off the hook just because the Brexit process ended on 1 January 2021. The UK’s equivalent vaping law (the TRPR) is what covers us here, and that law still applies. E-liquids with nicotine will still be restricted to 10ml bottles and the max strength will still be 20 mg/ml. 

Now that there's no obligation to match the TPD, the UK's medical experts may decide that there is room to loosen some of these rules on vaping. Back in 2015, Public Health England strongly disputed the TPD’s proposed 20 mg/ml nicotine strength limit in e-liquid before it even became law. In a long report, PHE said that “spurious reasons” had led to the EU’s 20 mg/ml limit, and that e-liquids with a nicotine strength of 36.6 mg/ml (almost twice the current legal limit) posed “no risk of nicotine poisoning” footnote 3

The UK government’s latest tobacco control plan does say that, after Brexit, they “...will look to identify where we can sensibly deregulate without harming public health or where EU regulations limit our ability to deal with tobacco,footnote 4 so there's certainly some hope that they'll at least review these rules in future.

Our bet is that the House of Commons won’t even look at vaping laws until at least 2022. Covid-19 is still a dominant problem for 2021, and there’s no immediate need to change the vaping laws (even if they are a little inconvenient for us all). We’ll keep a close eye on developments and we’ll be the first to update you.

Nicotine: how dangerous is it? 

Nicotine is a highly addictive drug (see our “How addictive is nicotine” advice), but it’s not as harmful as some people think. The most harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke are tar and carbon monoxide. 

According to Public Health England, “Nicotine increases heart rate and blood pressure, and has a range of local irritant effects, but is not a carcinogen. It is the tar and carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke, along with more than 400 other toxins, that causes almost all of the harm of smoking.” Just take a look at this revealing infographic from the website:  footnote 5


You might feel that, by swapping cigarettes for a vape device, you’re just swapping one form of nicotine addiction for another. This is partly true, but e-cigarettes are much less harmful than smoking, and with the right support, an e-cigarette can be a form of Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT). Not everybody turns to NRT when they’re trying to quit smoking, but research has shown that it’s a useful stepping stone on your journey to breaking your nicotine dependency for good. footnote 6

What are the laws on other chemicals in e-liquids?

Nicotine isn’t the only chemical in an e-cigarette, of course. Our laws need to protect us from vaping harmful chemicals of any kind. So far, UK regulators have taken a sensible, evidence-based approach, erring on the side of caution wherever there’s even a slight chance an ingredient could be dangerous. Just take a look at how each of the two chemicals below is regulated:

Propylene Glycol is allowed

We know that some people experience irritation when they inhale Propylene Glycol (...which is a base ingredient of e-liquid. It’s the ‘PG’ in VG/PG). 
Propylene Glycol is a food-grade product, and there are no reported long-term adverse effects caused by its inhalation, so it's not banned. If anyone does experience a serious adverse reaction, they can report it directly to the authorities via the MHRA’s Yellow Card scheme, but for now the advice is simple: if you experience irritation when vaping a high-PG e-liquid, try a high-VG alternative instead. You can find out more about PG and VG here

Diacetyl is banned

A study published in 2016 found evidence that inhalation of large amounts of diacetyl, a food ingredient commonly used in the manufacture of microwave popcorn, could potentially contribute to a rare condition called bronchiolitis obliterans (also known as ‘popcorn lung’). At the time, diacetyl was a common ingredient in a lot of the e-liquids being produced in the US. 
Both Cancer Research UK and the NHS have said that there’s no evidence that diacetyl in e-cigarettes could cause popcorn lung footnote 7, but just to be safe, the UK decided to ban the use of diacetyl as an e-liquid ingredient in 2016. In years to come we might discover that this was unnecessary and that diacetyl carries little risk, but until we know for sure, it’s right that the ingredient should be cut out for the time being. 

That’s it! I hope we’ve given you a good overview of UK vaping rules this week. Our feeling is that the UK’s current vaping rules do a really good job of keeping us safe, even if they are an inconvenience from time to time. 

We’re keeping a close eye on the latest guidance from the NHS and Public Health England, so if the rules or risks change we’ll be the first to let you know. 

Stay safe and happy vaping!

 - John


Links & Citations

Footnote 1

The nicotine in e-liquid is usually extracted from the tobacco plant, which is why it’s classed as a ‘tobacco product’ under the TPD. You can read the full text of the Tobacco Products Directive at the link below:

Footnote 2

This isn’t a comprehensive list — there are very minor differences we haven’t covered here (for instance the UK specifies that health warnings should be on the ‘front and the back’ of packaging) — but it’s fair to say that the EU and the UK have almost identical laws on vaping at the moment. You can read the text of both the TPD and the TRPR at the links below:

Footnote 3

In 2015, prior to the release of the Tobacco Products Directive, Public Health England released a report titled “E-cigarettes: an evidence update”. The report stated that “... for spurious reasons, Europe is poised to prohibit sales of products with nicotine concentrations above 20mg/ml.” and that “‘Ready-made’ e-liquids come in strengths of up to 36mg/ml nicotine, with the highest concentration recorded of 36.6mg/ml. This poses no risk of nicotine poisoning if used as intended.” This was the official position of Public Health England five years ago, so it may have changed since then. The full report can be found at the link below:

Footnote 4

“We will look to identify where we can sensibly deregulate without harming public health or where EU regulations limit our ability to deal with tobacco.“ — quote taken from the last section (page 27) of the Government’s most recent tobacco control plan, which you can download as a PDF from the web page below:

Footnote 5

The PHE quote and the infographic can both be found on the website at the link below:

Footnote 6 

The NHS report that “Most ex-smokers are able to effectively wean themselves off NRT after the recommended 12-week course. However, for those that continue to use NRT long-term, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says that ongoing use of nicotine containing products will be considerably less harmful than smoking.” 

Footnote 7

The Cancer Research UK website says “There’s no good evidence that e-cigarettes could cause the lung condition called popcorn lung. There’s been no confirmed cases of popcorn lung reported in people who use e-cigarettes.”
The NHS website gives even more information about this, and links to the original study, at the link below:

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