Disposable Electronic Cigarettes (Prohibition of Sale)

– in the House of Commons at 2:52 pm on 8 February 2023.

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Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 2:52, 8 February 2023

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the sale of disposable electronic cigarettes;
and for connected purposes.

E-cigarettes were billed as a health revolution—as something that could be held like a cigarette and puffed on like a cigarette, and would provide a nicotine hit in the same way as a cigarette, but without containing the tar and the other carcinogenic compounds that are known to cause cancer. In theory at least, they were designed as a quitting aid, like nicotine gum, to wean smokers off cigarettes, but sadly they have attracted a far wider following. The Office for National Statistics estimates that in 2021 there were more than 4 million vapers in the UK, and the number is likely to have risen since then.

This would, perhaps, be OK if we knew that each of those people had formerly had a “20 a day” cigarette habit, but that is not the case. Most worryingly, an NHS survey published last year found that, among 15-year-old children in the UK, 18%—nearly one in five—considered themselves to be e-cigarette users. Those who defend vaping often focus on the relative lack of health complications compared with smoking. On the use by children, some have even suggested that it is better for them to be vaping than smoking. As a doctor, those arguments concern me. E-cigarettes are very new, and some Members of this House may recall that there was once a time when cigarettes themselves were considered safe. E-cigarettes contain known carcinogens, cytotoxins and genotoxins. Studies from Harvard University and Boston University have linked vaping to the sort of constrictive bronchitis and cardiovascular effects similar to those experienced by cigarette smokers.

It is hardly surprising that a recent freedom of information request found that vaping-related hospital admissions almost doubled last year. Of those cases, 32 were in children. I spoke yesterday with Professor Andrew Bush, who described the adverse health effects in children and how there have been cases of young people requiring intensive care for severe complications from vaping.

Then, there is the issue of nicotine. The average Elf Bar, the most popular disposable vape sold in the UK, contains 20 mg of this highly addictive substance—roughly equal to between 40 and 50 cigarettes. Elf Bars are available at most retailers for £5 each, though I was able to find other brands online going for just £1.99. A recent investigation by the Daily Mail showed that Elf Bars were being sold with e-liquid volumes more than 50% over the legal limit. Chronic nicotine use is linked with a range of diseases affecting the heart, blood and nervous system, as well as impairing brain development in young people and increasing the risk of anxiety disorders.

Public health messaging is clear: smoking is bad for you. E-cigarette use is possibly not as bad for you, but we cannot be certain of the long-term effects of the individual flavourings. The best option is neither to vape nor to smoke. It is therefore crucial that while vapes are used to encourage smokers to quit, we protect children and young people from being lured into a lifetime of addiction.

Vaping manufacturers often insist that their products are intended for adults only but, at the same time, their product design appeals to a far more impressionable audience. They come in a range of bright, attractive colours. Some of the most popular flavours include bubble gum, cotton candy and strawberry ice cream. Their price and disposability makes the habit easier to hide from parents and teachers, who are unlikely to approve.

The slick marketing has been underlined in some cases by more overt flouting of the rules. An investigation by the Observer found that Elf Bar products had been promoted to children on TikTok. Similarly, sports teams such as Blackburn Rovers and St Helens rugby club have been sponsored by the vape retailer Totally Wicked. This reminds one of the cigarette marketing campaigns of the past. Like many parliamentarians, I received information last autumn from the UK Vaping Industry Association stating that the industry has more than 3,000 shops and an aggregate turnover of £2.8 billion. The question one must ask is how sustainable all those shops would be if vapes were supplied only to former cigarette users for a temporary period while they are quitting, and not to new teenage nicotine addicts.

Beyond the health effects of the disposable vapes is significant environmental harm. Disposable vapes have become part of the national embarrassment that we see everywhere, every day, littering our streets, our parks and our rivers like confetti. A few weeks ago, I helped local volunteers clean the River Slea and its banks, where several were found. According to a recent study by Material Focus, at least 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week. That is two per second, or around 1,300 while you are listening to this speech, Madam Deputy Speaker.

What is a disposable vape made of? Essentially, plastic, some vaping chemical, an electrical circuit and a lithium battery. None of that is good for the environment. Lithium batteries are particularly destructive to the environment. When single-use vapes are disposed of incorrectly—the vast majority are—they leak lithium into the ground when the battery case erodes, causing soil and water pollution. Ten tonnes of lithium are sent to landfill every year in this country as a result of disposable vapes. Lithium is a desperately precious resource, and a vital one in helping us transition away from the use of fossil fuels, but instead of preserving this vital resource we are quite literally throwing it away at enormous cost to the environment, which it pollutes.

Many disposable vape manufacturers claim that their products are recyclable, but the reality is that that is a very difficult task, because the device first has to be manually deconstructed and the components disposed of individually. One waste disposal website advises extreme caution when doing this, because puncturing the lithium battery during removal risks starting a chemical fire, so safety goggles and gloves are required. Several third-party vape sellers warn that it is not safe to disassemble a disposable vape at home, and there are very few operations that can recycle disposable vapes. Many studies cite the difficulty of recycling them, and a spokesperson for the vape manufacturer Riot admitted on BBC Radio 5 Live that only a fraction of 1% of its products were recycled.

I know that the Government are committed to achieving a smoke-free generation by 2030, but disposable vapes are adding little to reusable ones in this regard. Indeed, their greatest risk is creating a new generation of nicotine addicts. I fear that a new national health crisis is brewing under our noses. I am not the first person to call for restrictions on e-cigarettes. In an open letter to the Government, a number of environmental and health groups including the RSPCA, the Green Alliance and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, of which I am a member, called for a ban on single-use vapes. Many US states have imposed restrictions on them, followed by China, Japan, Brazil and most recently Australia.

The UK has often led the way when it comes to environmental policy. Under the Conservatives, we became the first major economy to make a net-zero commitment. Likewise, the cross-party support for the Online Safety Bill demonstrates this House’s commitment to the protection of young people from insidious threats to their mental health. Let us extend those protections to their physical health, too.

I speak as someone who cherishes our natural environment and wants to see it free from harm and ugly pollutants. I also speak as a mother, and I am concerned about the health of our children and the effect on them of these products that we still know so little about. By banning the sale of disposable vapes, we will encourage a more sustainable way of utilising e-cigarettes as quitting aids and make vaping less accessible to children, preventing an epidemic of teenage nicotine addicts and protecting our planet.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Dr Caroline Johnson, Sarah Olney, Dan Jarvis, Alberto Costa, Andrea Leadsom, Caroline Lucas, Kirsten Oswald, Lia Nici, Liz Twist, Maggie Throup, Steve Brine and Tonia Antoniazzi present the Bill.

Dr Caroline Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 246).