Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 4th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Prior of Brampton Lord Prior of Brampton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health 8:45 pm, 4th July 2016

My Lords, before this debate started I had feared that it would be a bit like Groundhog Day in relation to what happened in the Grand Committee Room earlier. However, it has been a fascinating and excellent debate. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Callanan and Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for tabling their various Motions and amendments. This has been a very good debate.

I start from the premise that all my instincts are always against regulation. In my view, there is normally a presumption against regulation. I should also make it absolutely clear that there is no doubt that vaping is far better for you than smoking. If, as a result of these regulations, more people were to carry on smoking, we would indeed have shot ourselves in the foot. To pick up the analogy that my noble friend Lord Ridley used about needle exchanges, the point is that they should at least be clean needles. I agree with his argument but we need some regulation to ensure that vaping is not abused, if I can put it that way.

I wish to make a small number of important points which have been raised by noble Lords. First, we have fought long and hard to denormalise smoking behaviours, and Members of this House have been at the forefront of that. It is right to take a precautionary approach to managing any risk that e-cigarettes renormalise smoking behaviours, particularly by restricting children’s exposure to e-cigarette marketing and imagery. Glamorising these products, with adverts reminiscent of those from the tobacco industry many years ago, can only make them more attractive to children. Recent research by the Cambridge behaviour research unit also suggests that exposure to e-cigarette adverts influences children’s perception of smoking tobacco. It reduces their belief in the harm of occasional smoking. This has the potential to undermine some of the great progress we have made over the last six decades in controlling the smoking of tobacco.

I know that there are calls for a return to self-regulation, but just last week we saw the Advertising Standards Authority rule on a glamorous advert. I do not think that props are allowed in this House, but this is a four-page advert on the front and back of the Evening Standard. On the front, there is a very attractive young woman looking out over London while smoking a cigarette. On the back, there is a James Bond lookalike jumping out of a helicopter. That is not aimed at people who are smoking but at young people who might then think about smoking. Figures have been put about showing that there is no evidence that young people are influenced by this kind of advertising. However, that is not the case everywhere. The US is seeing an upward trend in children who have never smoked cigarettes using e-cigarettes, and data from Poland show that 30% of children surveyed use e-cigarettes. The Government have therefore taken a precautionary approach to any possible risk of the renormalisation of smoking behaviours.

Some 96% of smokers are already aware of e-cigarettes, so I am clear that promotion is not about raising consumer awareness, which already accounts for 96% of that market. While businesses’ ability to communicate about their products may have been curtailed in the interests of protecting children, they have not been banned outright. The regulations will not prohibit information being provided to customers either online or in physical retail outlets. Nor will they ban independent reviews of these products or discussion in e-forums. Some advertising will be allowed, such as point-of-sale, billboards and leaflets. Essentially, these are the information routes that were used when e-cigarette sales and use were growing the fastest. My noble friend made a point about billboards, buses and the like. The reason for the distinction between outlets is to try to minimise the impact on young people. That is what lies behind the differentiation between advertising media.

Secondly, the regulations provide minimum product standards and reporting of ingredients and emissions. This should reassure smokers who are looking to quit that e-cigarettes are safe and high quality, and give the Government and health professionals such as GPs confidence in recommending them to smokers. The product standards in the regulations are a result of balancing user needs and risk of accidental exposure to children. Of the reported poisoning incidents, running at some 250 a year, one-third relate to young children under the age of four. The regulations require child-resistant packaging, and the 20 milligrams per millilitre limit for nicotine, combined with the size restrictions on tanks, ensures a maximum exposure of 40 milligrams of nicotine, which is below the level of 50 milligrams that the European Chemical Agency assesses would cause acute toxic effects for toddlers. ASH recently published data indicating that only 9% of vapers report using e-liquid containing 19 milligrams per millilitre or more of nicotine. I know that my noble friend Lord Cathcart is a heavy user of this particular substance, but he is among only 9%. Moreover, the changes in technology will make it increasingly possible for users to get high levels of nicotine uptake for any given strength. Producers can of course get a higher strength approved by the MHRA.

My third main argument in favour of these regulations is that the UK’s approach to the regulation of e-cigarettes has, and will remain, pragmatic and evidence based. We have one of the most liberal approaches to e-cigarette regulation in the world. We have implemented domestic age-of-sale legislation, preventing sale to under-18s, but we have not banned flavours in e-liquids or cross-border distance sales, nor have we restricted vaping in public places. I remind noble Lords that the latter two measures have been introduced in around two-thirds of all other EU member states and are also common in other parts of the world. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is right when he talks about gold-plating in this context.