E-cigarettes — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:58 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley 1:58 pm, 31st October 2019

I am really happy to be here this afternoon, also giving my last speech in Westminster Hall, which is something that I have been looking forward to for a considerable time—since 2016, when something that I do not want to mention happened.

I have been active in smoking cessation over many years in Parliament. This is a good, well sourced and evidenced report about where we should move in the future to protect our fellow citizens. Let me admit two things—this is a bit of a confession. First, it has been more than 40 years since I stopped, but I, too, used to smoke cigarettes; I was quite addicted. Secondly, I ought to mention that although there is no money in it, I am an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

The report makes it clear that e-cigarettes have proven to be a unique opportunity to steepen the decline of smoking rates in this country. They lack the dangerous tar and carbon monoxide components of conventional tobacco cigarettes and are consequently 95% safer, as Public Health England says. It should also be noted that second-hand vapour from e-cigarettes is substantially less dangerous than from tobacco cigarettes. As we all know, e-cigarettes can and do operate as a pathway from conventional smoking to quitting altogether. At present, something like 2.9 million Britons use them as a pathway towards quitting, with tens of thousands successfully stopping each year.

We were all surprised that under the previous tobacco control plan we got well below the target adult smoking rate: it is below 16% now, which is extraordinary. Sadly, that was not because e-cigarettes were used in smoking cessation programmes, although in my view that should be the future; it was because millions of our fellow citizens were buying those products themselves. Getting adult smoking below 16% is no mean feat, but more than 80,000 of our fellow citizens are still dying prematurely from tobacco use each year. We should never forget those statistics. If anything else were taking lives in this country every year at that level, we would be up in arms and this House would have done more to stop it.

Cancer Research UK’s briefing recommends that e-cigarettes be used as a tool to aid smokers who wish to quit in achieving their goal. However, it rightly points out —as the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Norman Lamb did—that unfortunately surveys have shown that 40% of clinicians are uncomfortable recommending e-cigarettes to their patients, and a further third are unsure whether they are safe to recommend, notwithstanding what Public Health England says about them. Moreover, just 30% feel that their knowledge is sufficient to advise patients on vaping.

Healthcare professionals must be made aware of the benefits of e-cigarettes in aiding people to quit. Although vaping is not completely risk-free, the reality is that it is significantly safer than smoking conventional cigarettes. Healthcare professionals must be made fully aware of that, so that they can ensure that their patients have the strongest chance of quitting smoking. It is difficult, and it may not necessarily be something that new doctors or doctors in training will be looking at. However, any health professionals attending or reading this debate, especially general practitioners, could do worse than go round to the vaping shop on their local high street to talk to the people who sell the products, because those are the people who trace their patients. They will know people who have gone from 50 cigarettes a day to none, or who used to need higher hits of nicotine but are now on lower and lower doses. I know people who still vape but use no nicotine at all; they are satisfying not an addiction, but a habit of using their hands. That is what ought to happen. It is quite true that there is no long-term evidence, just as there was not when the first heart transplant happened in South Africa, but it is pretty clear that there is evidence out there in our communities. We need our health professionals to go and talk to the people who have probably been dealing with their patients for some time.

Naturally, many people have raised deep concerns about whether vaping can operate as a gateway to smoking conventional tobacco cigarettes, but there is no evidence to suggest that such a phenomenon has materialised in any meaningful or demonstrated way. ASH, which I have been active with in this country for decades, has been monitoring what is happening annually, particularly around young children, and there is no evidence that it is causing nicotine addiction and leading people on to cigarettes.

I have to say that some of the evidence that we have seen about vaping in America is shocking. Some of the stuff that they put in is class A drugs—that is why we are having deaths. I know from going to America from time to time, where I have two step-grandchildren, that one company, which shall remain nameless in this debate, has been promoting vaping to young children with different flavours, although not necessarily with nicotine. When we talk to schools about it, they are up in arms about the nuisance and the litter. There is something to think about there, but we should not be too scared of it.

Although there are advertising restrictions and regulations on vaping, they are less stringent than those that apply to tobacco products. In June, the Library published a briefing paper that is well worth reading, “Advertising: vaping and e-cigarettes”. I first campaigned against tobacco in the 1993-94 Session when I introduced the Tobacco Advertising Bill, a private Member’s Bill to ban tobacco advertising and promotion. We are a long way down the road now, but there are still lessons to be learned from the Library’s paper about how these products are advertised.

The Science and Technology Committee has recommended that cigarette pack inserts could be used to refer smokers to e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative, but unfortunately that is currently banned under the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. We need to think quickly, because the people addicted to cigarettes are the ones who are going into shops and buying e-cigarettes. They are the people we should be targeting; I do not think that we can do it with things like websites. We could change those regulations in super-quick time—I can’t, because I’m off, but Parliament could, which would put us in a position to get to the people who are still addicted.

E-cigarettes need to be endorsed as mainstream in cessation programmes. About three years ago I visited the Leicester smoking cessation programme, which has been at the forefront of using such products. It has a wonderful scheme—led by a nurse at the time—in which pregnant women vaped at least throughout their pregnancy, which greatly enhanced the health and the life chances of their child. There is no reason why we should not make that mainstream. I know that people who smoke will now be referred to community pharmacies; that is good, but we should be looking at specific interventions with these products for people who are vulnerable, including unborn children.

Smoking cessations ought to be funded directly by the tobacco industry. I know that that would be an issue for the Treasury, but the Minister will need to talk to it. We often talk about making the polluter pay; tobacco companies should be paying for our smoking cessation programmes. Sadly, as we have said in previous debates, some of those programmes are now fading away. There are parts of this country that still have heavy and intense levels of adult smoking but have no smoking cessation programmes at all. That is wrong and, with more than 80,000 deaths a year, it should be stopped.