Clause 59 - Flavour of tobacco products

Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 14 May 2024.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

As per the previous clause, clause 59 replaces an existing power in the 2014 Act to make regulations about the flavour of tobacco products. Flavours, particularly menthol, have been shown to make it easier for young people to start smoking and therefore more likely to become addicted. That is because menthol flavouring makes the smoke less harsh and therefore easier to inhale. The flavour masks the harms of tobacco. All tobacco is harmful to health, and it is right that the Government have the powers to protect the population from those harms, and especially from tobacco products that may be more attractive to children. I commend the clause to the Committee.

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

As we discussed in the previous debate, tobacco is an insidious industry that causes untold harm to its customers, privatising the profits while socialising the costs. I know that there are many sceptics out there who suggest that the Bill’s central purpose—introducing a progressive rise in the age of sale—is not necessary because the number of people who smoke is steadily declining, especially among young people, but that makes the fundamental error of assuming that those gains are a natural force, not the hard-won result of concerted Government action over many years to reduce the appeal of tobacco.

Among the other measures, restrictions on the flavours of tobacco products that can be legally sold are certainly one, and we do not take it for granted that the powers are restated on the face of the Bill. However, as I have mentioned in previous debates, the issue of flavours has proven difficult to get right. Part of the issue is accessories such as drops, flavour cards and filter balls marketed to be added to tobacco products to give them flavours that they would otherwise not be allowed to have. I ask the Minister again whether she accepts the case that I have made for an amendment to the clause to include reference to accessories to tobacco products to capture such products.

There is also the issue of capturing flavours in legislation. As I mentioned earlier, a survey of smokers in Britain conducted in October 2020, five months after the menthol ban was introduced, and again in March 2023, found that the ban had had a negligible impact. The proportion of adult smokers reporting that they used menthol-flavoured cigarettes in 2023 compared with 2020 dropped by only 2%. Some in the sector went as far as labelling the ban worthless, as tobacco companies continue to sell hundreds of millions of cigarettes laced with menthol. Japan Tobacco International put a range of replacement products advertised as “menthol reimagined” on the market the day the ban came into effect.  That was backed up by a handbook for retailers on how to promoted the range, called “Making a Mint”. Smokers were quoted as saying that the products “tasted fully menthol”. A year later, Nielsen data showed that JTI had sold more than 100 million packs of it menthol reimagined brands, amounting to total sales topping £1 billion.

In 2020, Imperial Tobacco made formal complaints about the behaviour of JTI, claiming it was breaching the legislation, before following suit by launching its own green filter range. Does the Minister think that it is time to get it right, and that we should scrap the focus on so-called characterising flavours, which are subjective and difficult to regulate, and extend a ban to all tobacco flavours?

I note that the Government were meant to review the menthol ban legislation nearly three years ago, yet we have not heard anything since then. The whole point of the ban was to target flavours that make it easier for young people to start smoking and increase the likelihood that they will become addicted. I would be most grateful if the Minister shared her thinking on the issue.

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

I will share my thinking, because this is important. We are all on the same side where the Bill is concerned, and I say very genuinely to hon. Members that there is an important debate about flavours. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston says that we should scrap menthol, but the problem is that if we scrap menthol it will be reimagined as “raspberry mint crush”—it will still be menthol, but simply reimagined. That is the perfect example of how people can get round the legislation by calling it something else—something even more appealing to children.

The idea of tackling the issue in secondary legislation is to ensure that we stay ahead of the industry at all times. I understand the desire to put things in the Bill, but I hope all hon. Members recognise that there are also weaknesses associated with something which, if we are to change it, requires primary legislation to do so.

Clause 59 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 60 ordered to stand part of the Bill.