New Clause 11 - Testing of samples of nicotine-containing e-cigarette products

Part of Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 14 May 2024.

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Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health) 3:00, 14 May 2024

I rise to speak to new clauses 11 and 13 on the testing of nicotine-containing vape products. Earlier we debated clause 73, which will allow Ministers to create new exceptions to publication as part of the notification scheme. We of course welcome those new powers, which represent a concession on the Minister’s part. However, the current notification process, which is what products must go through to get on to the UK market, is not as robust as it should be for nicotine-containing vapes.

As we have said, youth vaping is a serious growing issue. In 2021, Labour voted for an amendment to the Health and Care Bill to crack down on the marketing of vapes to children. Since then, according to the most recent survey by ASH, the number of children aged 11 to 17 who are vaping regularly has more than trebled to more than 140,000 British children. Meanwhile, one in five children have now tried vaping.

This issue is not only a concern in itself, but there is the issue of whether all these products are safe and whether they are what they say they are. I have raised serious concerns, for example, about the fact that children are puffing on 0% vapes that actually do contain nicotine, which gets them accidentally addicted. This is something that we discussed at the evidence session and that goes to a fundamental question about the MHRA’s role in the regulation of vapes. Is the MHRA really only the administrator of the notification scheme, or should it have a clearer responsibility to regulate and to take responsibility for the safety of vaping products?

Clause 73 indicates that the Minister agrees that it should. This is something one would expect the MHRA to take an interest in. Vapes are a product with clear consequences for the health of the population. There are risks, and some of the long-term health consequences of sustained vape use are not properly understood, but the Government’s policy is effectively to recommend this product as a stop-smoking aid. The Government, therefore, have a responsibility to be able to say with confidence that the products they legally allow on to the market are what they say they are and are safer than smoking.

We heard evidence from Dr Squire, the chief healthcare quality and access officer at the MHRA. It was an interesting discussion but, when it came to the notification process, what I took away was the fact that she could not say, “This is an absolutely robust system that keeps everybody safe,” and, “That is why the Bill is important.” I supported clause 73 to provide exceptions to publication, which would allow policies to be set where the MHRA would refuse to publish the notification for products that would make them available for legal sale. My concern, however, is about what is missing from the legislation to give the MHRA the information it needs to say confidently whether a product is actually safe.

I want to be clear in case the Minister raises it: new clause 11 is not about undermining the enforcement role of trading standards teams. After a product gets to the market, trading standards proactively ensure that potentially dangerous products are not stocked on shelves, and we have the yellow card scheme for customers to report an adverse reaction to a vaping product. Who is monitoring the long-term risks of these products? I doubt they would be caught by either trading standards or the yellow card scheme, but that is another question.

In relation to new clause 11, however, what I am talking about is the screening of products before they get to the UK market to enable the MHRA to have the information it needs to refuse a notification publication, even if the company has, on paper, met the requirements. I appreciate that the exceptions in clause 73 are not yet defined, but the MRHA does not have the powers to gather the information it needs in the first place in order to make those exceptions. As Dr Squire admitted herself, there are cases right now of products getting on to the market that do not match the product registered through the notification scheme. Those products could have tank sizes that are too large; they could include dangerous chemicals or include dangerously high nicotine strengths.

Our fundamental concern is that these products are now extremely popular with children. That is why I contend that the MHRA should have additional powers to test a proportion of products to ensure that they comply with their notifications. I think any outside observer would contend that that is common sense. The Secretary of State has testing powers for tobacco products, so why not for vapes? Will the Minister therefore support my new clauses, which seek to address that through this Bill? This is not just about the market as we know it today; this is about safeguarding the future of vapes to ensure that consumers can have confidence in those products and that we, as legislators, can have confidence in the products that we are recommending as stop-smoking aids. That is why I commend new clause 11 to the Committee.

Finally, new clause 13 would require the Secretary of State to report on some of the new powers on testing that I have just described, as well as on another power that the MHRA does not have at present, which is to remove notifications from publication. Currently, this power rests with the Secretary of State in the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 to recall a product if it is deemed to pose a serious risk to human health. This is a high bar. It is my concern that in practice the emergence of such risk can be a slow process.

I have told the Minister before how the limitations of this power were made clear the other year when Elf Bar, which is perhaps the market leader in this space, was found to be selling vapes with tank sizes that were larger than allowed. The responsibility to remove those products from the market actually lies with the producer—quite rightly—but this issue is about the recourse that the Government have when a threat is urgent and a company does not comply.

New clause 13 would also examine the case for a duty to be applied to trading standards that would be similar to the duty on councils in Northern Ireland to share intelligence on non-compliant and illicit products, so that we can better join up the enforcement response at the national level. Once again, I urge Members to support these new clauses and I commend them to the Committee.