Examination of Witnesses

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

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Professor Sir Stephen Powis and Kate Brintworth gave evidence.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 10:25, 1 May 2024

Q We have until 10.55 am for this session. Would the witnesses like to introduce themselves briefly?

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

My name is Professor Sir Stephen Powis and I am the national medical director of NHS England.

Kate Brintworth:

Good morning, everyone. My name is Kate Brintworth and I am the chief midwifery officer for NHS England.

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

Q You have raised concerns about the rise in youth vaping. You have said that this needs to be nipped in the bud. Do you think the measures in the Bill will lead to decreased rates of youth vaping?

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

Yes, I do. As you have heard from the chief medical officers, vaping has a role in tobacco cessation and supporting those who want to quit smoking. That is the guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which we follow and support in the NHS. Evidence is increasing that starting vaping and the use of nicotine-based alternatives to smoking is likely not to be safe. As far as the NHS is concerned, we would support the limited use within smoking cessation, but we have real concerns around the impact that vaping might have over time. At present, we see a relatively small number of admissions into hospital as a result of vaping, but that is growing; it has grown over the last few years. Clearly, as you discussed earlier, the evidence base that these products are not safe is growing.

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

Q You have mentioned the smoking cessation services we already have within the NHS, but there is no equivalent for vapes. Do you think there could be a case for these schemes to be made available for young people or pregnant women?

Kate Brintworth:

Our position on vapes is that they are a tool for those who are already addicted to smoking. As Chris outlined earlier, this is a way of supporting people to move away from cigarettes. We would then expect that to be part of their journey to becoming a nicotine and smoke-free household.

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

Q There is a growing industry in illicit substances, in terms of the vapes available in the market. Is that where you are seeing some of the impact with children in terms of hospital admissions? Have you seen any adverse reactions?

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

Yes, we have. If you look at admissions recorded in our statistics related to vaping, you will see that they are in the hundreds. They are relatively low, and of course much lower than smoking, but as I think you have heard from the chief medical officers’ evidence, these are not safe products. We are at the early stages of the evidence-base building around their impact. I think we should be nipping this in the bud. We should not be waiting for those admissions to increase and for those effects to be seen. This is an opportunity to reverse that direction, and I applaud parliamentarians for taking it.

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

Q Would you like to say anything about admissions of young people in relation to smoking?

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

I will make a few broad comments on smoking, if I can. Seventy-eight years ago, Parliament passed the National Health Service Act 1946, which led to the formation of the NHS on 5 July 1948. In my view, the legislation that you are considering here today is one of the most important—possibly the most important—pieces of legislation since the passage of that Act. Why? Smoking has an extraordinary impact upon the health of the nation, and of course directly upon the NHS.

To put that into a bit more context—you have heard some of this already, but maybe I will provide some more detail—smoking is associated with, or causes, over 100 individual conditions that are managed and treated within the NHS. It impacts the NHS at all levels: almost every minute of every day there is a hospital admission related to smoking; there are over 100 GP appointments every hour for smoking-related disease; and 400,000 admissions a year are related to or associated with smoking. You have heard the chief medical officers briefly talk about the impact on specific diseases. Lung cancer is the one that everyone knows about, and 80% of lung cancers are caused by smoking. This Bill has the opportunity to transform lung cancer from a common disease into a relatively rare disease, and one that clinicians of the future will not see in any way as commonly as clinicians of my generation.

It is not about just lung cancer; you have heard about the impact on cardiovascular disease, and clearly, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease would again become a rare disease for the clinicians and the patients of the future. This Bill can also have an early impact on diseases that affect young people. Asthma is a disease not caused by smoking but a condition exacerbated by it. We see such admissions particularly over the months when asthma is worse and when there are respiratory infections, which are no doubt exacerbated by smoking.

In mental health, smoking doubles the risk of developing depression. More than one in two people with severe mental health conditions smoke, and the life expectancy of those with mental health conditions is reduced because of smoking. Mental health issues in our young people and children are well-known and well-described, and smoking simply exacerbates them. There is great potential, even in the early years, in the passage of this Bill for an impact on conditions that we see and manage in the NHS. Over the long term, that potential impact is extraordinary on those conditions, which number over 100.

You may know that I am a kidney doctor, but you may not know that smoking can impact on kidney disease. The kidney, like any organ, is supplied by blood vessels. When smoking impacts on the health of blood vessels and causes vascular disease, that can reduce the bloody supply to the kidney, which can cause kidney failure and lead to dialysis and transplantation. There is a large range of conditions that are impacted by smoking, and it will be extraordinary for those clinicians of the future not to have to do what we have done—tell patients and their families that people are going to die prematurely. That is an extraordinarily difficult thing for clinicians to do. Those are preventable diseases, and this Bill will prevent them.

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

Q Thank you so much for being here today. As I said to the chief medical officers, you will appreciate that your words can be very helpful in smoothing the passage of this very important Bill. I would like to talk to Kate, please, about the impact of smoking on mothers who are pregnant. What is the impact on their babies, on the delivery of the baby, and on the baby’s health outcomes? If you could give us an outline, that would be very helpful.

Kate Brintworth:

It is important to start with the fact that we know that smoking is the single biggest modifiable risk factor for pregnancy, and we know that every women who gets pregnant wants the best for her baby. As a midwife, I have never sat in front of a woman who does not want the absolute best for her baby. It is important to build on what Chris Whitty said around the removal of choice. Women will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their bodies and babies to ensure that their children have the best start in life, and yet the quit rates that we see in pregnant women are between 30% and 40%, showing how difficult it is for women to extricate themselves from the situation in which they find themselves.

The effects are devastating: stillbirths are increased by 47%; you are twice as likely to have a baby that has not grown properly; and you are 27% more likely to have a baby that is born pre-term. You are more likely to have complications of pregnancy, such as bleeding, the placenta not forming properly or the waters that surround the baby breaking earlier with the risk of infection, so there are immediate effects that we can see. If a baby is small, it goes into labour more vulnerable to the stresses of labour, so we can have more complications there. If a caesarean section is needed, the mother is more vulnerable to recovery and it can be a much harder road to recovery for her, with the risk of infection and blood clots, but also for the baby. If the baby is born early, obviously the risk then is that the baby and mother are separated and you have this unnecessary trauma to a family of a baby having to go into a neonatal unit. The risks that come from prematurity are well-documented for children, for educational attainment and for their lung and health development, but when the children go home, they are more at risk of sudden infant death syndrome—up to three times more—in a smoking household.

There are then the long-term effects. We have already heard about asthma, chest infections and obesity. All those are heightened in children born into smoking households. You have a situation where children are at risk and women are at their most vulnerable when they are pregnant, and it really feels like it is our duty to support this Bill to protect the most vulnerable in our society, because there are the effects of having a child born with possible behavioural problems and malformations, which have been described. Those are really shocking events. I was talking to service users yesterday who have had children in the neonatal unit, and it is incredibly shocking when your pregnancy ends early and you are separated from your baby. There is a mental health impact on the family. There is also the point that this affects those coming from the most socioeconomically deprived backgrounds, for whom having any kind of health challenge makes it a much higher bar to fight.

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

Q That is very harrowing to hear. Could you further expand on the impact on families of losing a baby due to stillbirth as a result of smoking? How does that impact on their mental health? As you said, parents will do everything they can to protect their baby, but the addiction to cigarettes is so strong that for many it must lead to them blaming themselves for the death of their baby.

Kate Brintworth:

The birth of a child is so happily anticipated by every person who gets pregnant. From the moment that you see a thin blue line, you are having a baby. You have hopes and dreams for the expansion of your family, but not just for that individual family: a baby is born, and it is a niece, a nephew, a grandchild, a cousin. It really ripples out across the entire family. When there is then a 35% risk of miscarriage and a higher risk of ectopic pregnancy and, as you said, the absolutely awful, tragic and devastating news that your baby has died when it reaches term, that is something that no parent should ever have to face unnecessarily. It just feels like the worst thing you ever have to do as a clinician to tell someone that their baby has died. Every time I have ever had to do that, it has been the worst point in my career. It is difficult to explain how destroying it can be for families, and we see the long-term sequelae in terms of mental health, to the point where we have put in extra perinatal mental health support for families that have suffered that kind of trauma.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

Can I pick up on the health inequalities aspect, because I think that is really important and I have the figures in front of me? In 2021-22, 21% of pregnant women in the most deprived areas smoked at the time of delivery, compared with 5.6% in the least deprived areas. That is a really stark difference. Smoking is widely accepted as the most significant driver of health inequalities in the UK. Detailed analysis has concluded that 85% of the observed inequalities between socioeconomic groups could be attributed to smoking. We spend a lot of time in the NHS quite rightly targeting our interventions and support to deprived areas to address health inequalities. At a stroke, this Bill would have the greatest impact that we could possibly see.

Photo of Steve Tuckwell Steve Tuckwell Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip

Thank you for coming to address us this morning. We heard compelling insight from the chief medical officers earlier. Will you update the Committee on how you see this Bill supporting the NHS in the long term and the short termQ ?

Professor Sir Steven Powis:

I have already highlighted some of the short-term impacts, and there will undoubtedly be short-term impacts. Some conditions are exacerbated by smoking, with asthma in children being an obvious one. I have talked about mental health conditions and the way that smoking exacerbates conditions such as depression and chronic mental health illness.

We will start to see immediate effects, but those effects will grow over time. I have given you some of the conditions that are impacted on by smoking—there are well over 100 of them—but I can give some more stats. By stopping children from ever starting to smoke, we estimate that we will prevent about 30,000 new cases of smoking-related lung cancer every year. More than 1.4 million people suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is a chronic disease of the lungs caused by smoking—it causes nine out of every 10 cases. As I said, that is a disease that clinicians commonly see. A common cause of admissions to emergency departments, through the winter particularly, is other respiratory infections on top of COPD—these are diseases that future clinicians will see rarely. They will not see them in the way that clinicians of my generation have had to manage them. The impact will begin immediately, but over time that impact will get greater.

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

Q As you have just set out, we understand the harmful impact of tobacco, but I want to look at vaping. Is there any evidence of the impact on individuals who vape, or of a secondary impact, such as on triggering asthma or NHS admissions, or of an impact on admissions from the contents of vapes? We often talk about vapes, which are a delivery mechanism for substances. How should we regulate so that people understand what they are vaping, not least because it is now moving to an illicit market?

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

As I outlined earlier, the impact on the NHS of vaping at the moment is relatively small compared with the impact of smoking. Nevertheless, there is an impact, and we are seeing growing numbers. I have highlighted the number of admissions per year, but they have doubled over the past few years, so that impact is becoming apparent. For example, yellow card reporting to the MHRA is a mechanism for reporting harm, and again the number of incidents related to vaping is increasing, although still in relatively low numbers.

As I said earlier, however, what is important here is that the evidence base, although emerging, is growing. This is an opportunity for us not to get into a position where, in years to come, we regret that we did not take the steps early on to change the trajectory. Instead of seeing rising impact on the NHS—small at the moment, but with the potential to be greater—that trajectory should be changed. This is a golden opportunity for parliamentarians to step in early and to prevent further pressure building over time on the NHS, while recognising that the evidence is still emerging.

I agree with the chief medical officers you heard earlier: I do not believe that vaping is safe. It is undoubtedly safer than smoking, which is why we support its use as a means of smoking cessation, but beyond that the evidence is building that it is not safe. Unquestionably, it will have a building impact on the NHS.

Photo of Angela Richardson Angela Richardson Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Q My question is for Kate. I think we all fully accept that vaping is a great smoking cessation tool. About a year ago, the NHS was helping women who smoked to transfer to vaping while they were pregnant. We know that nicotine crosses through the placental barrier, and earlier you outlined the difficulties that mothers and their children have in terms of health outcomes.

How much do we know about the difference between the impacts of smoking and vaping? Thinking of the impact of vaping on babies, is vaping still an okay thing for pregnant women to be doing? Do we need to specifically address the impacts of vaping and smoking on pregnant people in the Bill?

Kate Brintworth:

If we start with the evidence, as we have heard this morning there is a limited evidence base around vaping, but that does not mean we should be complacent. We know there is evidence around the transfer of chemicals and the reduction in lung capacity, which we see. As Chris said, while that is an improvement against the very, very low bar of smoking, we would see it as one step on a journey—an interim measure to being nicotine and tobacco free. On that basis, I do not think I would frame it as being okay to vape. We would see it as a tool—a means to an end—to reach the position of being nicotine and smoke free.

We will absolutely support research monitoring the impact of vaping. We cannot be complacent that it is going to be all right. However, at the moment, vaping is absolutely better than smoking, with the very well documented impacts that I have described on not just the mother but the baby and the future health of the family; we know that children born into households where smoking occurs are likely to start smoking themselves.

Photo of Angela Richardson Angela Richardson Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Q Can I follow up quickly? Nicotine is having an impact on babies; we heard from teachers about nicotine having an impact on young children when they are in school. Obviously, other substances are involved in tobacco smoking. Do those other substances cross through the placental barrier, or is it just the nicotine?

Kate Brintworth:

It is all of it—all the elements. In some babies born to smokers, the children can almost suffer withdrawal symptoms and be jittery and restless in the neonatal period because they themselves are having to go through that withdrawal that is so difficult to enact. We also know of the numerous chemicals—arsenic, carbon monoxide—all of which are toxic to infants, so in no way would you want to distinguish out. It is a whole package of things, all of which we would like pregnant women and babies not to be exposed to.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Opposition Whip (Commons)

We hope that this really important Bill will prevent future generations from smoking. In your professional opinion, what impact can the Bill have on that stubborn figure of 6.4 million people who currently smoke? What in the Bill can help those people? It is such a high figure; when you describe the kinds of illnesses and what happens to pregnant women who smoke, it is horrifyingQ .

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

Over time, this Bill will lead to the eradication of an addictive condition that causes the immense harm that we have described. But of course, that will occur over time, so it is also important that we continue with a range of other measures to encourage those not immediately impacted by the raising of the age of sale of tobacco products to cease smoking.

We have a number of smoking cessation programmes within the NHS, which was part of our ambition in the long-term plan for the NHS five years ago. We have been rolling out and supporting those services within hospital settings, and we should continue doing that. Of course, local authorities should also continue their work in supporting smoking cessation. Much of that is also targeted at women who are pregnant.

Part of that work is also supporting staff. Smoking rates across the 1.3 million or 1.4 million people employed within the NHS are lower than across the general public, but we nevertheless continue to see NHS staff who smoke. It tends to be in the lower pay grades within the NHS, but of course for all sorts of reasons we would like that rate to come down. Obviously there is the health benefit, but also, as you all know, smoking causes illness, illness causes absenteeism and absenteeism is a cost to the NHS. Although, as I said, we strongly support the Bill, it is important for us within NHS England and the wider NHS to continue to take other measures and put in place other programmes that will assist the public and our own staff to quit cigarettes.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q Thank you both for powerfully and poignantly outlining the preventable impacts of smoking-related disease and illness on adults. I want to ask about pregnant women. In Cumbria, 12.3% of women at the point of giving birth say that they are smoking. Given the evidence-based proof, why is that still the case? I am left asking why we have we left it so long to have these conversations and bring the Bill forward.

I would like to understand the power of addiction to be able to make the point that this is a pro-choice Bill. It will give women more choice against that addiction that they are enduring at the most important point of their lives, when they are unable to make that choice for themselves.

Kate Brintworth:

I absolutely agree with you. As I have said, pregnant women go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves and their babies. They change what they eat and drink and how they behave in myriad ways to ensure that they are doing the right thing, yet it has proven very difficult to shift the figures you describe—I think nationally it is a little over 7% of women who are still smoking. That is a poignant demonstrator of just how difficult it is and how addictive nicotine is, when all women want to do is the right thing for their children. That is why all the chief nursing and midwifery officers across the four countries are united in support of the Bill, as our medical colleagues are, because we see the damage wrought across families and generations. We are 100% behind it.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

It is important to re-emphasise the point made repeatedly by the chief medical officer for England: smoking and nicotine addiction takes away choice. When you are addicted, you do not have the choice to simply stop doing something. It is an addiction. It is a set of products that removes choice, and in removing that choice, people are killed.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I want to ask you about vaping, particularly among children and pregnant women. First, to Kate, are you aware of any research into which chemicals from vaping may be transported from the mother’s blood through the placenta and into the baby, and whether that has any effect, or is the research too early to be able to tell us that information? For Professor Stephen Powis, could you tell me what research NHS England is supporting into the effects of vaping on childrenQ ?

Kate Brintworth:

The information that we have so far suggests, as it does across all areas of healthcare, that vaping is safer than smoking. What we do not have is the long-term data that we have on smoking to give us the confidence to describe the harms clearly. That is something that we need to keep observing and understanding so that we can give people the best-quality information.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis:

NHS England is not a primary funder of research but we are an evidence-based organisation, as I described earlier, particularly on the use of vaping for smoking cessation. We are very keen that the evidence base, particularly on vaping, is expanded. We would support research in terms of calling for it to be undertaken but also in terms of supporting the NHS as a delivery mechanism for the context in which that research is done.

We very much want to support further research because, as you know as a paediatrician, this is an area where the evidence base is emerging but there is more to do. It is not as complete as the evidence base for smoking. It is really important, even with the passage of this Bill, that that evidence base grows and that we in the NHS support the generation of further evidence where we can.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Thank you. That is a good point at which to say that this session has ended and to thank our witnesses for all the information they have provided.