Examination of Witnesses

Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 1 May 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Professor Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Francis Atherton, Professor Sir Michael McBride and Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith gave evidence.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Q103 We now move to our first panel this morning, where we will hear from Professor Sir Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England; Sir Francis Atherton, chief medical officer for Wales; Professor Sir Michael McBride, chief medical officer for Northern Ireland, via Zoom; and Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith, chief medical officer for Scotland, also via Zoom. We have until 10.25 am for this panel. You can introduce yourselves, if you would like.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I think you have introduced us, Dame Siobhain—unless you would like us to make just three comments on previous witness statements, just to help the Committee.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I think I speak on behalf of all the chief medical officers when I say we enormously welcome the Bill, which I think the overwhelming majority of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers fully support. It is an extraordinarily important public health measure.

There are three points we thought it would be useful to make, the first of which is about the harms of tobacco overall. You have heard already from witnesses how extraordinarily impactful tobacco is in multiple domains of health, right from stillbirth in children through to dementia in old age, and it is important to stress that that is true of all tobacco products. We have had questions about chewing tobacco, and I know there have been debates about heat-not-burn tobacco. Tobacco is an extraordinarily dangerous product that is highly addictive and causes cancer, heart disease and many other problems in all its forms. It is important to stress that. The cigarette industry is extremely adept at trying to claim that this kind or that kind of tobacco is safer, and therefore safe, and asking why we do not just let it go. The industry did it with filters and many other things. But I think we should be really clear that all tobacco is dangerous.

The second point is to re-stress that the whole basis of the cigarette industry, and indeed the vaping industry, is to addict people and to remove their choice. The tobacco industry has been highly successful at framing the debate as if this legislation is about removing choice, when actually it is selling products whose whole point is to addict people who then regret that choice for the rest of their life, many of whom will die as a result. All of us as doctors have seen so many people in all stages of life—from pregnancy all the way on—who wish they could stop but cannot because their choice has been removed. If you are pro-choice, you should be firmly in favour of this Bill; it is a very pro-choice Bill.

Alongside that are the suggestions that the arguments somehow change at particular ages, such as 21. Tobacco remains equally addictive all the way through the life course, and all the way through the life course, people who start are likely to regret that choice but be unable to come back from it, because they have had their choice removed. We therefore cannot see a logical reason why, if Parliament is going to take this bold public health step, which is extraordinarily widely supported across the country, as well as in the health professions, it would not wish to finish the job and go all the way through. There is not really a logical point to that.

The final point came up in evidence yesterday, and I want to be clear, because I think there is actually a high consensus on this. We are strongly supportive of Ministers in all four nations having the power to regulate flavours as well as colours, packaging and other areas. There is a debate about the best way to do that, which will be dealt with; because it is in secondary legislation, this can be dealt with as we go through. But we would be very supportive of them having those powers. We know that otherwise the vape industry will use this to essentially drive a coach and horses through the aims of the Bill, which is to make products less attractive to children and, to a lesser extent, to non-smoking adults. That would be a big mistake. We also do not know the long-term effects that some of these flavours may have when smoked. We want to clarify that we are strongly in favour of this component of the Bill as well as others.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Q I think everybody would say that that was a very clear rebuttal. Would any other members of the panel like to introduce themselves before we open the floor to questions?

Sir Francis Atherton:

I will briefly say hello. I am Sir Frank Atherton—rather than Francis, if I may, Chair. To echo what Sir Chris has said, it is rare to achieve such a high degree of consensus across the medical community as there is around this Bill. It really matters for people of the UK, and it really matters for the people of Wales.

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

I would reiterate every word that Sir Frank has just said. The consensus across the medical profession, as far as I can see, is absolute. Chris has spoken very clearly and represents the views of all the CMOs and our deputies. From conversations we have had with past CMOs, we know that they are supportive for the same reasons. We have the weight of professional opinion behind us, certainly from the medical profession.

Professor Sir Michael McBride:

I am chief medical officer in Northern Ireland. I would echo all that has been said. To add to Sir Gregor’s point about the weight of professional opinion, in Northern Ireland we also have the weight of a huge majority of the public. They are hugely supportive of the smoke-free generation and of measures on displays, point of sale and flavours of vapes.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

We have heard compelling evidence, and we will hear again from the health sector today. Lots of people will say that the Bill could essentially just raise the age of sale from 18 to 21, but we have heard good evidence for why that is not the case. For the record, what would you say to the people who think we will not be able to do the age verification, which we know already exists in Scotland?Q

Sir Francis Atherton:

To echo what Sir Chris said earlier, nicotine is uniquely addictive, and it is addictive across all ages. Simply raising the age to 21 may have a limited effect and may well not have a long-term effect. The tobacco industry is incredibly adept at adapting its tactics to target smokers, whatever their age. It would seem likely to us that people could quite reasonably become addicted beyond the age of 21, but the legislation would prevent that from happening because of the rising age across the course of life.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

Q Do you want to say anything about age verification?

Sir Francis Atherton:

Age verification is a relatively simple matter if there is to be a cut-off at 2009. It is much clearer to retailers that that would be the age at which people would not be eligible to buy tobacco products.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

Q One facet of the Khan review recommendations that was touched on a little yesterday is the measures to protect pregnant women and unborn babies. What will be the impact of the Bill on pregnant women and unborn babies, and when do you think the target could be met?

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

Shall I have a first go? One of the first groups to be enormously positively affected by the Bill will be pregnant women and their unborn children. I know you will be hearing from the chief midwife, but briefly, stillbirth, premature birth, “small for dates” babies and birth deformities are all things that happen as a result of smoking. It is extraordinarily dangerous. All mothers want the best for their children; but, to reiterate, smoking is so addictive that people’s choices have been removed. They wish to get rid of the smoking in pregnancy, and they cannot because their choice has been removed.

What is clear is that the age band at which the greatest amount of smoking in pregnancy occurs is the youngest women. People who have babies in their late teens or early 20s have by far the highest rate of smoking. Those, therefore, will be the ones who would be positively affected by this Bill the most quickly, because then they would not be going into a pregnancy already addicted to smoking, with all the consequent harms for their baby and subsequent child, which may be lifelong. I do not know whether any of my colleagues want to add to that.

Professor Sir Michael McBride:

One of the most concerning aspects of smoking tobacco is the health inequalities that it accentuates. In Northern Ireland, rates of smoking in the most deprived areas are over three times the rate in the least deprived. As a consequence, lung cancer rates are two and a half times higher in the most deprived areas.

If we look at pregnancy, pregnant women in Northern Ireland in the most socioeconomically deprived areas are five times more likely to smoke than those in the less socioeconomically deprived areas. The consequences for their health, and for the health of their children and unborn child, are very significant. They are addicted to a habit that is causing them harm and their unborn child harm.

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

To add to Sir Michael’s data, in Scotland in 2023, there were just over 50,000 pregnancies; 11% of those pregnancies—that is 5,500 pregnancies—were booked where the mother was recorded as still being a smoker. A further 6,000 were booked where the mother was a former smoker. These are still really significant numbers. Of course, as Sir Michael has just said, this not only has implications for the mother and the health of the pregnancy; it has longer-term implications for the baby as it develops and grows. We know that anything that we can do to reduce the number of women in these age groups who are coming to pregnancy as smokers will have a beneficial effect not only on them and the health of their pregnancy, but on the health of future generations.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

Q Finally from me, and this question is for Frank and Michael, the latest ONS figures in 2022 show smoking prevalence in Wales and Northern Ireland remaining constant rather than continuing to fall in the way that it did in England and Scotland. Do you think Wales and Northern Ireland have specific challenges related to smoking prevalence?

Sir Francis Atherton:

It is certainly true that we are not going as fast in Wales as we would like to see. Smoking prevalence has dropped, from about 22% in 2020 down to 13% at present, but our target is to reach 5% by 2030, and we are not currently predicting that we will meet that target unless we go further and faster. We believe that this Bill will enable us to do that.

You asked for the reasons. One of the reasons is that we have deep-seated sociodemographic problems in Wales, which you have been referring to. Given the inequity that we see, meeting the needs of current smokers from those really deprived socioeconomic groups is really quite a challenge. We are doing everything we can in Wales to try to address that through “Help Me Quit” and smoking cessation support, but we really need to prevent the next generation from coming on board with smoking.

Professor Sir Michael McBride:

Just following on from Sir Frank’s comments, you are absolutely correct that, while population prevalence of smoking sits at around 14% at the moment—behind the 12% in England and the 13% in Wales—we are doing slightly better than Scotland at the moment, which is sitting at about 15%. The figures for the Republic of Ireland are somewhere in the region of 18%. There is absolutely no doubt that we have the same socioeconomic drivers, in terms of social deprivation and health inequalities, that are fuelling this. Should the Bill succeed and pass into legislation, I see this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a significant change to protect future generations and their children from all the harmful consequences of smoking tobacco and other forms of tobacco use.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Q I thank all you chief medical officers for being here; we appreciate it. You will understand that your witness evidence is crucial to easing the passage of the Bill. I would like to get you on the record talking, first, about the start of life. The shadow Minister has just asked about pregnancy and, only this week, I was talking to a neonatal nursing lead, who said of the pregnancies of women who smoke that the children had a low birth weight and go on to have severe learning difficulties throughout their lives. That is heartbreaking, but also has significant implications for NHS and educational services, and for whole-life costs to the taxpayer. I would be grateful for your comments on that.

At the other end of the age range, elderly people who have smoked all their lives end up with decades of ill health brought on by a lifetime of smoking. I would be grateful, too, if you talked about some of the health outcomes for those who have smoked all their lives—some of the horrors of that. Sir Chris, you told me an anecdote of when you were a young vascular surgeon. For the record, it is important to talk about some of the heartbreak for those who wish they could stop smoking.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I completely agree with all the points you made. Starting off with the beginning of life, there are clear and significant increases in stillbirths, premature births, birth abnormalities and long-term effects from smoking just in the pre-birth period. Then, of course, if parents are smoking around babies and small children, that affects lung development and, if children have asthma, that will trigger asthma effects. Young children are significantly affected by passive smoking from their parents. The parents, of course, want the best for their children, but the problem is that they are now addicted to a product that has taken their choice away. We get those problems right from the very beginning, and we have talked about some of the issues in young pregnancies and where that leads.

Moving to the other end of the age spectrum that you were talking about, the full horrors of smoking for most people start to take effect from middle age onwards. At this point, people get a range of things. Everyone knows about lung cancer, I think, and most people know about heart disease, but there are effects on stroke or increases in dementia, which are significant—one of the best ways to delay dementia is not to smoke or to stop smoking at an early stage. That is a huge problem for all of us. Smoking also exacerbates any problems people have with diabetes—it makes that much worse—and people have multiple cardiac events leading to heart failure. In heavy smokers, we see extraordinary effects, like people having to lose their limbs. As you and I discussed, it is a tragedy to be on a ward with people with chronic obstructive airways disease, or on a vascular ward as a vascular surgeon with someone who has just had an amputation, weeping as they light up another cigarette, because they cannot stop, because their choice has been removed. I cannot hammer that point home firmly enough: this is an industry built on removing choice from people and then killing them in a horrible way.

Sir Francis Atherton:

Minister, you also pointed out the cost to the NHS. In Wales, we estimate that we have about 5,500 deaths every year from smoking-related diseases. If we look at admissions to hospital, about 28,000 in the over-35 group is about 5% of overall hospital admissions. That is an enormous burden to the NHS. On a more personal basis, in a former life I was a GP, and I remember sitting with an elderly gentleman who at the end of his life was suffering with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There is no worse death than not being able to breathe when just sitting there. I remember sitting with him as he was trying to talk to me and trying to express that same level of regret that Sir Chris talked about. If you talk to any smokers towards the end of their life, who are facing such terrible ends to their life, the sense of regret that you hear as a doctor is quite overpowering.

Professor Sir Michael McBride:

It is estimated that in Northern Ireland there are more than 2,000 deaths each year directly attributable to smoking cigarettes; over the past five years, smoking makes up 12% of all deaths in Northern Ireland. Sir Frank and Sir Chris have clearly described the horrors of the impact that it has at an individual level, and as doctors we have all experienced that. We have all had those conversations with individuals who look back on a lifetime of regret.

On a more personal level, I also think at this moment about the impact that premature death, and the morbidity and mortality associated with smoking, has on families and children. My own father died at 46 years of age, when I was 16, from acute myocardial infarction as a consequence of a lifetime addiction to smoking cigarettes. So, we need to bear in mind the very human costs, family costs and wider societal costs as well. It is not just the cost to the health service, but the societal cost, the family cost and the cost to the wider economy.

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

We should never forget the societal cost that Sir Michael just spoke about. I am the child of two smokers who died in their mid-60s from smoking-related disease. We see it all too often in Scotland. In fact, in Scotland we still have 9,000 deaths a year attributed to tobacco addiction and smoking. That is one death every 61 minutes that families suffer across Scotland as a consequence of addiction to smoking.

As a clinician, one of the diseases that I had become quite specialised in treating and led a lot of work on is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That is a smoking-related disease that people develop, often at too young an age, and begins to really impair their ability to participate fully in life—not only in employment, but in the pastimes that they love. Gradually, over time, it becomes worse.

Sir Frank touched on the sense of regret that people have that they ever started smoking in the first place and find themselves in this position. Beyond that, there is an even sadder element: many of the people who experience these chronic life-limiting illnesses have not only regret that they ever started, but guilt about the burden that they place on the health service and their family because of the illness and disability that they develop. That guilt sometimes reaches to the extent that they do not seek full care. Many people’s attitude is, “I deserve this. I started smoking; I need to pay the consequences.” That is a terrible psychological position for any person to find themselves in. Removing the starting point for that addiction, so that people will not experience that through their life, is the aim of the Bill.

Let me make one last point. We talk about the health impacts of all this. The Scottish burden of disease study projects that over the next 20 years, up until 2043, we will see a 21% increase in the general burden of disease across our population in Scotland, despite having a falling population during that time. Much of that projected burden of disease is smoking related; it relates to cancers, cardiovascular disease and neurological conditions such as dementia, which are all influenced by smoking. It is absolutely necessary for us to address this in a preventive way, and I believe that the Bill is a very good way of doing that.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I want to reinforce the point that Sir Gregor just made, with which I am sure the Committee fully agrees, that individual smokers should never be blamed for the situation they are in. An incredibly wealthy, very sophisticated marketing industry deliberately addicted them to something, at the earliest age it could get away with it, and they have had their choice removed. It is important that people do not feel guilt and come forward for care, and that no one blames them for a situation that was deliberately put on them by industry marketing.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

I will continue on the theme of marketing. Do you have thoughts about the measures relating to the product restriction of vapes in the Bill? Are they robust enough, in your mind, to prevent the harm that is caused by vapes, particularly to young people? I am thinking of the study that came out yesterday that, concerningly, suggested a risk to teenagers who vape of exposure to toxic metals, potentially harming their organ and brain development.Q

As a follow-on from that, I am concerned about the advertising of vape companies on sports kits, which is profoundly unhelpful. When we look at sporting figures who young people can admire, that has absolutely no place. I wonder what your views are on that.

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

My views are very clear on vaping in young people and on sales to the youth categories. This is an activity that we are still learning much about but that the evidence, as it emerges, appears to suggest is very harmful to them. In my conversations with my paediatricians and with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, they are very concerned about the impacts on health of young people from beginning vaping. Any attempt to make products such as single-use vapes or flavoured vapes, or the packaging used or the marketing around vapes, more attractive to that age group is something that we need to counter and resist.

I would say that the aims of the Bill will allow us the means by which we can properly consult on the way that we attempt to reduce overall vaping use in this age group. I am very clear in my views on this: while I understand that vaping may be an assistance to people who are already addicted to tobacco and nicotine products as a consequence of use of many years—I see that there may be an argument that it allows them to reduce the level of harm they are exposed to—I am not convinced or led by any of the arguments that starting vaping in a younger age group is a safe activity at all. I do not believe that that is the case; I believe that it is harmful to those groups. We must try to counter that, and to counter the marketing machine that Sir Chris has spoken about, by reducing the flavours and packaging that are attractive to younger people.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

Q Can I press you, Professor Sir Gregor, on the issue of sports marketing? Do you think it is acceptable that big football teams, for instance, are advertising vape companies on their strips?

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

I am very much in favour of the sports industry in general promoting health-promoting behaviours in any way. Where I become very uncomfortable, and I am not supportive, is where the massive attraction of sports companies is used in a way that promotes behaviours that are known to be unsafe or unhealthy. Given the evidence base that we have for this, I would certainly favour breaking the connection between the marketing of these products by any organisation—I do not limit this to sports companies—and anything that is attractive to this demographic and age group.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I completely agree with all the points that Professor Sir Gregor has made; I know all the CMOs would agree with that. What all the witnesses that you have heard so far have said, which I think reflects the debate, is that we want to retain vapes as one of the tools to help some smokers to quit. That is a sensible thing to do. We are reasonably confident that they are safer than smoking, but saying that something is safer than smoking is setting an unbelievably low bar, because of all the harms that it does.

So yes, moving from smoking to vaping is a step in the right direction—we want to be clear about that—but we absolutely do not want this to be marketed to anybody who is not a smoker, and above all to children, which is utterly unacceptable. We should be very clear about this. Many people in the vape industry will say, “No, no, no: we don’t market to children.” You walk into a vape shop and think, “Who are you kidding?” It is very clear what is happening.

We should be really clear that the only thing that is being supported here is to help people who currently smoke to move over to not smoking and eventually to quitting. A step towards that can be vaping; all other uses of vapes we would absolutely not want to do anything to support. The balance in the Bill is to allow enough elements to make it more attractive to vape than to smoke, because we do want to do that, but to make it in no way more attractive than that, because we absolutely do not want anyone else to do it.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I think we are all very keen for the Bill to get through in the time that remains in this Parliament, so none of us would want to complicate this, but as Sir Gregor says, what we really want is for sports to be very firmly in the area of things that promote health. This is one of the areas that I do not think any of us would suggest is promoting health, so in broad terms we would agree, while not wanting in any way to complicate the Bill that is before Parliament at the moment.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

Thank you to all the CMOs. I would like to press that point a little further. Should the advertising of vapes be in alignment with that of tobacco products, for simplicity and understanding? Should the rules on where people can vape be in alignment with those for tobacco products, so not in indoor spaces or in cars transporting children? Are we missing an opportunity, in the light of the opening comments about the addiction to nicotine, to create a nicotine-free generation, as opposed to a tobacco-free generationQ ?

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I wonder whether Sir Michael might want to go first, and then Sir Frank.

Professor Sir Michael McBride:

We have to start somewhere. What we actively want to do, at this point in time, is encourage those individuals who smoke to quit smoking. We recognise that there are nicotine replacement products other than vapes that are very effective and that individuals successfully use, but for some individuals, as has been stated already and as is outlined in the relevant NICE guidance, vapes can be effective and are safer than smoking. It is about finding the sweet spot—hence the powers to consult.

We need to get a balance to ensure that we are absolutely not creating circumstances in which vaping is attractive to young children, starts a lifetime of addiction to nicotine and is potentially a gateway to smoking tobacco, as I think your question is suggesting. But at this point in time, this is an important step to ensure that the next generation are protected from smoking tobacco. We need to support those individuals who currently smoke or are currently addicted to nicotine to gradually move away from that addiction. That includes supporting smokers who currently smoke to quit, but we are increasingly seeing individuals who wish to quit vaping and are finding it difficult.

We are at the start of a journey. As Sir Chris has said, we do not want to delay this Bill and this important step change, in terms of making very significant progress. Sir Frank, do you want to add to that?

Sir Francis Atherton:

Very briefly. The principle of alignment is a positive one. Keeping it simple for the public is in the interest of messaging, as a general point. In Wales, we did try—in 2016, I think it was—to align smoke-free and vape-free public places. Personally, I think that there is merit in that, but we have to be careful, because some of the arguments are different. The arguments around smoke-free public places are based on passive smoking, but we do not have a lot of data on passive vaping; many people see it as a nuisance, but that is a very different argument. We need to be a little bit cautious about that, even though I would personally be in favour.

The important thing is to remember that we really need to keep vapes as the quit tool. Your point about moving towards a nicotine-free next generation is absolutely right; that is really what we want to do. If we can make it less acceptable and less prevalent that children take up vaping, we should move towards that. The reality is that over the last three years we have seen a tripling of vaping among our children and young people. That is just unacceptable. The measures in the Bill will help deal with that and lead us, we hope, towards the nicotine-free generation that you talk about.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I want to go back to the vapes point. As we have all agreed and you have highlighted, vaping was, for all intents and purposes, a product to help people off tobacco, but it has become a product marketed in its own right. What are your personal and professional views on the Bill as it stands? It would stop people selling vapes to under-18s and stop members of the public or family members buying them on behalf of under-18s. Should we ban under-18s from using vapes full stop? Also, should we move vapes on to a prescription basis to ensure that they are aimed at people who want to give up smokingQ ?

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

My view on the Bill as it stands is that it is a starting point for how we take this work forward. It is adequate in that sense because this is a really important area. For me, the absolute priority has to be to remove young people’s ability to access vapes and so begin the journey to nicotine addiction.

I am not in favour of criminalising the possession of these products, but I am certainly in favour of banning their sale to younger people. If we can achieve that at this stage, and, as Sir Michael said in his previous answer, if we can begin to shift the culture so that people do not start to use vapes and begin to become addicted—potentially also by using other nicotine and tobacco products—for me that will be a good job done.

If we do things that way, it will allow us to protect the useful use of vapes: where people with a lifelong addiction to tobacco can use them as way to help them stop. That is the only justification that I can see now for the way we have set this up and for continuing to use vapes in society: as a useful tool for those with a pre-existing addiction to tobacco, so that they can reduce the harm and gradually stop using tobacco—through formal cessation services, as well.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I agree with Sir Gregor. To reiterate, the Minister wanted to get a balance and most people would agree that criminalising people for individual possession is a step further than anyone would want and is needed. I do not think there is a clamour for that from anybody, and I think it would not help the Bill.

On prescription vapes, I would like to see those available for use at the moment. So far—I will go into the reasons for this on another occasion—no products are available that we can prescribe. We would all very much like those products to be there so that people can prescribe them. That is different from saying that they should be only on prescription; at this point, we do not even have any products to prescribe at all. If we did, that would be a very firm step in the right direction, but it depends on the industry coming forward with products.

Speaking directly to the industry, I should say that I do think there is a very important niche for prescription vapes. They would be very useful for some people, particularly those on low incomes who, for other health reasons, have free prescriptions. I encourage anyone from the industry who is listening to think seriously about bringing forward a prescription vaping product appropriate for aiding people to quit.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I think the whole panel have said they are 100% behind the Bill. It is great that the whole medical fraternity is going together, but are there any tweaks that you would like to see in the Bill that could make it stronger—for example, making age verification the same in England as it is in Scotland? One of our concerns is that we have a chance to get primary legislation in only once every 10 years or so, and doing it now would be far better than waitingQ .

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I have had the privilege of being more heavily involved in this Bill than the other CMOs, so I am going to ask them to answer it. My short answer is that this is a fantastic Bill. What I do not want is for the Bill to be delayed and therefore to not get through in the parliamentary time available. There is always a danger with these things, particularly when we are up against the clock, of the best being the enemy of the good. This is more than good; this is an outstanding Bill, to be clear, in terms of the Prime Minister’s bravery in putting it forward and, I think, the huge support from the general public and massive support from those working in healthcare. Really, what we want to do is get this through. I fully accept the points you are making, but that is my real concern about proposing any additions. Maybe you can start with Sir Michael, then Sir Gregor and then Sir Frank.

Professor Sir Michael McBride:

I think this is a situation where perfection risks snatching victory from us. The most important thing, having looked at the Bill closely, is that this is an excellent Bill. I think we have all indicated that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, as your question suggests. We need to seize this opportunity. I and my colleagues fully support this Bill. I think this is a point that we will look back on five or 10 years from now and we will say that we were on the right side of history in supporting the Bill. This will make a fundamental difference to the next generation and generations to follow. Again, it is entirely consistent with the commitment in the Northern Ireland Executive to gradually phase out tobacco smoking. I fully support the Bill as it stands.

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

I have nothing much more to add. In my view, this is a momentous point in time when we have the ability to really safeguard the future health of generations of people who will not be exposed to the regretful, harmful addiction to tobacco that they might have encountered. I am very satisfied with the content of the Bill as it is just now. The point Sir Michael makes about perfection being the enemy of good is a really important one. This is an opportunity that, to be honest, I really did not anticipate seeing in my career, yet here we are discussing a potential piece of legislation that will allow us to improve the health of people in our country for years and generations to come. This is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.

Sir Francis Atherton:

There are no changes to the primary legislation that I would recommend at the moment. One thing I would say is that in Wales, we were very impressed with the Khan review, which gave us a really good steer. Many of the Khan review recommendations will be dealt with through the Bill, while a couple will not. I think the Bill as it stands has enough flexibility, particularly around vaping, to allow secondary legislation to keep up with the industry as it adapts and as it tries to find ways around the barriers to getting young people addicted to nicotine.

If I had a wish from the Khan review, it would be around the industry making a contribution to those costs I was talking earlier—the cost to the NHS—so sort of a levy on the industry to correct the damage, or a polluter pays thing, as is being introduced for the gambling industry. However, I do not think that would fit at all with the current Bill.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Q The other issue is that the medical evidence is very clear on the damage that tobacco smoking does to people’s health, but on vaping, medical evidence is emerging. Sir Chris, could you lay out your concerns about vaping, the delivery mechanism and the chemicals in vapes?

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I reiterate at the beginning that we think it is safer to vape than smoke—I always have to say that first. All of us, including the other CMOs—what I am about to say is a pretty central view in the medical profession—would say that there are many things in vapes that we know cause harm, but we do not know the extent of the harm because they are relatively new products, or we would say we do not know whether they cause harm, but they might well do. We know from work on air pollution that there are large numbers of chemicals that if you breathe them in in reasonable concentrations are highly damaging not just to lungs but to brains, the liver and many other things, but are not damaging if you eat them.

The fact that something is non-toxic—a food additive, say—does not necessarily mean that it is non-toxic if you inhale it. So all of us are very cautious about the long-term effects of vaping and very concerned that we do not see a large expansion of vaping in people who were not smokers. That is particularly true for children. Within that, there are things available in legal vapes—multiple things—and every time a new flavour is brought in, new chemicals are introduced for which we often do not have a good evidence base. In my view, the onus should be on the industry to prove it is safe when inhaled, and not on us to prove 20 years later that it was dangerous. There is a very serious concern about that. Additionally, there is a significant additional risk from illegal vapes, of which there are many, which contain really very dangerous chemicals—heavy metals of various sorts.

None of us would want you to go away with the idea that we think vapes are safe and that we would encourage their use, except in the narrow context of someone who was a smoker, where we definitely think they are safer. But that, as I said earlier, is setting the bar very low.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I inform Committee members that we have 14 minutes to go and three people who have not yet spoken and would like to. I want to bring in the Minister and the shadow Minister at the end. I notice that there is huge unanimity among our panel members. Could I also ask you to be brief and perhaps get one of your number to answer a question so that we get everybody in? Bambos Charalambous is next.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Independent, Enfield, Southgate

Sir Chris, you mentioned tobacco-related diseases. I want to focus on the impact that that has on the NHS. How would the Bill help the NHS in the short term and then in the long termQ ?

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

In the interests of brevity—the medical director of the NHS is one of your next witnesses—there would be an immediate effect on the NHS because things like asthma attacks in children would be affected almost immediately. Over time there will be a growing positive impact on the NHS as people do not prematurely become unwell with chronic diseases that are extremely difficult to treat and consume enormous resources, in addition to the much more important thing of the extraordinary impact on individuals and their families, their social life, their work life and so on. So there will be a positive and growing impact. If you look forward 30, 40, 50 years, the impact of the Bill on the NHS will be substantial, but we will start to see the effects rapidly, particularly at the paediatric end of the spectrum.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Bearing in mind what the Chair just said about being brief, can the panel explain the stages of addiction—the physiological, psychological, biological impacts of addiction—and perhaps comment on the frequently heard statement that this is a free country, people should have choice and then use disciplineQ ?

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I will reiterate my point and then hand over to Sir Frank for a longer answer. Cigarettes are a product designed to take choice away. That is the whole basis of the industry. If you are pro-choice you are anti-cigarette—absolutely, straightforwardly, no question.

Sir Francis Atherton:

As I have said, nicotine is an incredibly addictive substance and it does not take long to become addicted, so it is not really a stage; it is almost instantaneous. People smoke a few cigarettes and the nicotine addiction kicks in. Obviously, it varies from person to person, but by and large it is highly addictive to young people. The younger you start, the more addictive it is, but it is addictive across the whole of the lifecycle, so nobody is immune to that addiction. Breaking that cycle of addiction and getting out of it gets you into psychological dependencies and repeated attempts to quit—the things that many smokers have been through, which cost them so much time, energy and effort, in terms of money and their personal effort and wellbeing. That is all I can say about the status of addiction. Was there anything more specific that you wanted to know?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q It was more about the biological impact—how nicotine affects your body and makes it so very difficult to give up and be disciplined. It was about the biological impacts that nicotine has on the body, or the psychological impacts.

Sir Francis Atherton:

As with any addictive substance, when you are deprived of it you suffer cravings and withdrawal symptoms of a sort, and that leads you to want the next hit—the next cigarette. That cycle of dependency and addiction is well known and well understood, but you would have to talk to a behavioural psychologist or a physiologist to get a more detailed answer.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

To add to that, most smokers who are determined to quit make multiple attempts—even those who finally succeed, and many people do not succeed. As I was saying, so many people want to succeed and cannot because the addiction has a hold on their brain, essentially.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham

I thank the panellists for being here. I want to go back to clause 62 and the issue of vapes and flavouring. In the interest of brevity, would you say that if we ban all flavours there is a risk that some ex-smokers will be dissuaded from continuing to vape?Q

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

There is a surprising degree of consensus on this issue, which is sometimes difficult to pick up. We know it is useful to have in the armamentarium the ability to have some flavours to help smokers to quit, but we also know that the cigarette industry is extraordinarily good at adapting its marketing techniques to whatever leeway it is given. If Ministers do not have the power to chase down the industry’s ability to market to children using flavours, that is what it will do: it will go for multiple flavours as a way to get to children and non-smokers. That is what it has always done, so that is what it will do. This Bill gives powers to Ministers in the four nations to make sure they can restrict these products to the extent that you can make them not attractive, but attractive enough to smokers to move on. It allows the slider to be moved left or right to balance attractiveness to smokers against not making it attractive to non-smokers.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham

Q I have seen a product that is just a plain bottle with “vape” and a number written on it, which is exactly the same flavour as the one that is clearly marketed to children with a teddy bear on it. If we get rid of that packaging and advertising, could we still use some flavours?

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

Possibly, but this Bill gives powers that allow us to vary it depending on what the industry does. That is really the point.

Photo of Angela Richardson Angela Richardson Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I have just looked online and found the top influencers on social media for vaping. I know the Government sometimes use influencers in order to change behaviour. Has the NHS been involved in paying influencers for vaping? Related to that, a lot of young people and children feel under pressure a certain way, and nicotine is known as an appetite suppressant. What message do you have for young people on that basis?Q

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

I wonder whether I can turn to Sir Gregor first, and then maybe Sir Michael.

Professor Sir Gregor Ian Smith:

I am not aware of the NHS ever engaging any of these influencers, in terms of how we approach the subject of vaping. There is certainly a real danger that social media is sometimes used by younger people, and they see things that become really attractive to them in terms of lifestyle. The misinformation and disinformation that exists across those platforms can lead them to participate in activities that are potentially harmful.

Directly to your question, my very strong answer to any young person thinking about using one of these products as an appetite suppressant is: please don’t. Please safeguard your health. Do not begin the potentially addictive journey of using these products. Do not do it for any reason.

Going back to the point we made earlier on, I would love to see a society where our sports organisations promote much more healthy behaviours, where we have a much better understanding of the huge variation in body image we have across our society, and where we promote the very positive and broad representation of who we are as the general public, because there is no “one size fits all” answer to who we are. We are beautiful in our diversity. Anything we can do to have a more positive representation of society across these platforms would be very beneficial.

Professor Sir Michael McBride:

Believe it or not, I was a teenager once too, and I remember what it was like. Teenagers tend to push boundaries and experiment. It is all about finding yourself and your place and space in life. It is not cool to vape. It is not cool to succumb to peer pressure. Be yourself. Make sensible choices about what it is right for you. That is the message I would add to Sir Gregor’s point. We have an unfortunate situation where teenagers like to experiment and push boundaries and we have an industry that is only too willing to exploit that and market products at them with, as we heard, cartoon figures on the front, attractive colours and flavours that taste and smell nice. They are extensively marketed by opinion leaders. So don’t follow the crowd. Be yourself.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

Q We should all be concerned about the increase in the use of vapes by young children, so it is important that the Bill will ban the sale of vapes to under-18s. It will also close the loopholes for under-16s, because we know that vapes are being marketed and given out for free. That is the issue we must address. My concern with the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities being disbanded is on public health messaging. Parents and families are really concerned that some of their children are going through a number of these vapes per day or per week, and they do not know what is a safe amount.

There is a growing illicit vape market, but how would parents know what is illicit or what the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has notified as being compliant? Where is the public health messaging to support schools? We heard really good evidence yesterday from the union. This is my concern: where can people access support and information? We already have a generation of kids addicted to vapes that are marketed as having 0% nicotine, but we know that there is nicotine contained in them. What would you say to that?

Sir Francis Atherton:

There is some messaging going on through the various Governments. In Wales we have a “No Ifs. No Butts.” programme, which tries to work at an individual level, to alert people to the dangers that we have been discussing, and with wider society, about the dangers and links between illicit tobacco and illicit vaping and organised crime. Bringing that awareness to the population is really important for those two reasons.

We work with trading standards to try to tackle the issue of illicit tobacco and vapes. It is important that we continue that. My understanding is that wherever we have been successful in reducing demand, which the Bill intends to do, the illicit supply also decreases. We would expect that to be a consequence of the Bill.

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

One of the many talking points of the cigarette industry is, “Well, any kind of downward pressure on cigarettes would lead to an increase in the illicit market.” All the evidence shows that the reverse happens. When you bring in reduced demand, the illicit market decreases.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Q I think we might be out of time, but I have one more question. In the passage of the Bill, there is a concern that some may wish to fix flavours on the face of the Bill, rather than allow the powers. Sir Chris, can we have a comment on the record on how damaging that would be?

Professor Sir Chris Whitty:

That would be very damaging, because we know that this is one of the most innovative marketing industries in the world. That is how they have managed to sell to people something that will addict them and then kill them. If we give them room for manoeuvre by nailing things down, they will find a way around it, because they always have found a way around regulations. I am absolutely supportive of the comment you have just made.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I am afraid this brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions. I thank all the witnesses, because you answered a huge number of questions and provided great information.