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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:24 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 2:24 pm, 31st October 2019

I will do my very best. If there is anything I have not covered, I hope that the answer will be winging its way to the right hon. Gentleman on Monday.

The Government are absolutely clear that quitting smoking and nicotine use entirely is the best way for people to improve their health. We recognise that e-cigarettes are not risk-free, as has been stated by all Members who have contributed; however, they can play an exceedingly important role in helping smokers to quit for good, particularly when combined with “stop smoking” services. It is an addiction, and we are trying to achieve a step change in people’s practices and behaviours that enables them to quit entirely. We do not know the long-term harms of e-cigarette use, and no authorities in the UK assert that they are harmless. Based on current evidence, Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians estimate that e-cigarettes are considerably less harmful than smoking because of the reduction in levels of exposure to toxicants in e-cigarette aerosols compared with tobacco smoke. However, I reiterate that quitting smoking is the best option.

It is fair to say that opinions on e-cigarettes are divided, both in the UK and globally. It is important that we listen to concerns, while looking objectively at the evidence base and seeking to build it further, which I think is the point that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk was making. On the question of research, I assure him that there is an NHS England dedicated lead—a director for prevention—in place, overseeing the NHS long-term plan commitments. I note the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about India and the fact that making decisions too quickly, not based on the research that is available, has unintended consequences.

As the House is aware, we have introduced measures in the UK to regulate e-cigarettes: to reduce the risk of harm to children; to protect against e-cigarettes acting as a gateway to starting smoking—another important point that has been made today—to provide assurance on relative safety, and to give businesses legal certainty. Regarding what has happened in the United States of America, we take those concerns seriously—we are aware of the tragic deaths associated with vaping in the United States and are monitoring the situation carefully. Public Health England and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency are in close contact with the US agencies. Investigations are ongoing; they have not yet been able to confirm the definite cause of the deaths, although it appears that the majority of those who died had used illicit cannabidiol with THC products, which led to those unfortunate deaths.

To date, there have been no known deaths from e-cigarette use in the UK. The MHRA yellow card reporting system is in place to report any adverse effects. It has been running for three years and, to date, has been notified of about 85 individual cases; all have been minor, and none has been considered life-threatening. However, I assure the right hon. Member for North Norfolk and all other Members who have contributed to this debate that we remain vigilant on the issue and are grateful for all research done in this area, including—my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson alluded to this—by those within the charity sector who do a great deal of work in looking at the harms caused.

In our tobacco control plan, we made strong commitments to monitor the impact of regulation and policy on e-cigarettes and novel tobacco products. To inform future policy, we are looking closely at the evidence on safety, uptake, health impact and the effectiveness of these products as smoking cessation aids. Public Health England will continue to update its evidence base on e-cigarettes and other novel nicotine delivery systems.

The use of e-cigarettes by young people was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley and by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford. Such use currently remains low, at 2%, and we have not seen the rise that has occurred in the United States. However, we will monitor the data closely to ensure that regular use does not increase and it is not seen as a gateway to tobacco use, and will also keep a close eye on any new evidence about long-term harms caused by flavourings. If the evidence shows that we need to address either or both of these issues, we will consider taking action, including further regulatory action where necessary. I would like the industry to show stronger leadership in the areas of e-cigarette product labelling and, in particular, design to ensure that its products do not appeal to young people. Some of the current naming appears to lean in that direction.

In future, we will have the opportunity to reappraise current tobacco and e-cigarette regulation to ensure that it continues to protect the nation’s health. I thank all Members who have spoken today, particularly the right hon. Member for North Norfolk, who will be leaving this House. Today has been a bit of a goodbye party for him, for my hon. Friend Bill Grant—I am staggered by the revelation that he smoked 50 a day; I wonder that he had time to do much else, let alone run around being a fireman—and for the right hon. Member for Rother Valley. I am sure that all of them will continue to work in this area.

I reiterate the Government’s commitment to help people quit smoking, which is ultimately the best course of action, and to seek evidence on reduced-risk products. We will continue to be driven by that evidence. Although we can celebrate the fact that adult smoking in England has fallen by a quarter and regular smoking among children has fallen by a half, I will truly be able to celebrate—like all right hon. and hon. Members present, I am sure—if we reach the goal, which both the report and the Government are aiming for, of being smoke-free by 2030.