It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my friend, Norman Lamb, on securing this important debate.
E-cigarette use in the UK has followed a gently rising trend over the past few years, and last year, statistics from the Office for National Statistics showed that 6.3% of those over 16 were regular users—a rise of less than 1% over five years. In our August 2018 report, the Science and Technology Committee concluded that e-cigarettes should not be viewed in the same way as conventional cigarettes. They are an effective stop-smoking aid and should be formally considered as such.
In its response to the letter sent on behalf of the Committee by the Chair, Public Health England confirmed that it believed, as the Committee did, that e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than conventional smoking. As our Committee found:
“A medically licensed e-cigarette could assist smoking cessation efforts by making it easier for medical professionals to discuss and recommend them as a stop smoking treatment with patients.”
Existing smokers should be encouraged to give up, but if that is not possible, they should switch to e-cigarettes as a considerably less harmful alternative.
We must acknowledge that there are uncertainties about the longer-term health effects of e-cigarettes. They have not been in circulation long enough for any scientific research to be certain. Concerns have been raised in the United States, as was mentioned, about an isolated outbreak of serious lung injury linked to illicit vaping products, but I suspect, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that there may have been other factors at play in that instance. In any event, we have not seen that replicated in the UK, largely because, as ASH confirms, we have a strong regulatory system in place, which is not yet the case in the US.
The Government mandate strict conditions, namely a minimum age of sale, a ban on advertising in broadcast media, print or the internet, and a stipulation that products containing over 20 milligrams per millilitre of nicotine need a medicinal licence. Products must also be child-resistant and tamper-evident, and packs must carry a health warning covering over 30% of the surface area.
Moreover, to be balanced, any judgement on the future of e-cigarettes must take account of human nature and the most likely alternative to vaping, namely returning to harmful conventional cigarettes, which have proven to be a serious health risk over time. While some groups would prefer the firmest possible line—Cancer Research UK, for instance, is pressing for a tobacco-free UK within the decade—most groups agree that e-cigarettes can provide a useful route towards quitting harmful conventional cigarettes.
We have seen clear evidence that e-cigarettes are an effective quitting aid for adult smokers and, crucially, the percentage of young smokers trying e-cigarettes in Britain is small, with continued use smaller still. They flirt with the e-cigarette, but do not continue with it. There is little evidence to suggest that such products act as a gateway to conventional smoking—they are not, as some would suggest, a stepping-stone to conventional smoking—and figures show that almost 3 million people in the UK today are using e-cigarettes as an aid to quitting harmful conventional cigarettes.
Unfortunately, the Committee found that some aspects of the regulatory system for e-cigarettes are holding back their use as a stop-smoking measure. Restrictions on the strength of refills and maximum tank size have led some users to move away from e-cigarettes and return, sadly and regrettably, to conventional smoking. There seems to be little scientific basis for these limits, and I am pleased that the Government, in response to our report, intend to consider these anomalies and how to address them. It is good to see that the Government also agree with our conclusion:
“There should be a shift to a more risk-proportionate regulatory environment;
where regulations, advertising rules and tax duties reflect the evidence of the relative harms of the various e-cigarette and tobacco products available.”
Such a move might well bring about the welcome improvements in health that we, as a society, desperately seek, particularly from lung cancers and other by-products and unintended consequences of smoking. It is proven beyond doubt that conventional smoking is harmful. I look forward to seeing those changes implemented.
I take this opportunity to speak directly to conventional smokers. Despite being a fire officer for 31 years, sadly I was a 50-a-day smoker for many years, although I have long since stopped. Believe me: being a smoker was a costly, smelly and unhealthy mistake in my life. I only realised that afterwards. Yes, I enjoyed my cigarettes then, as the smoker today does. Even in my time in the fire service, when I left a fire with my breathing apparatus on and pulled the face mask off, some kindly colleague would have a pre-lit cigarette for me. It was certainly madness at the time, and I indulged in it. It is not easy to stop, but anything that is good is not always easy. Believe me, it can be done. My plea to those who do smoke is: you can stop if you put your mind to it, and it is absolutely worthwhile.