Illegal Vapes

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 16 January 2024.

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Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 4:30, 16 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of the use and sale of illegal vapes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and I am pleased to have secured this debate, in order to highlight my concerns about the use and sale of illegal vapes.

As a country, we should be pleased with the progress that we have made in reducing smoking, with smoking rates falling to their lowest since records began; now, only 12.9% of the population smoke. In some part, this progress is down to the wide array of nicotine replacement products: patches, pouches, gum, and of course, in more recent years, vapes.

However, despite vapes being an effective alternative for adults to use in order to quit smoking, we must be concerned about the risks they pose to children and non-smokers. Vapes are not risk-free. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, whatever means are used to absorb it, and there remain unanswered questions about the longer-term use of vaping. As Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, has said:

“If you smoke, vaping is much safer;
if you don’t smoke, don’t vape.”

I have concerns about vaping that I wish to raise with the Minister in this debate. They are threefold: first, the availability of vaping products to children; secondly, the sale and supply of illegal vaping products to children and adults; and thirdly, the organised crime and exploitation that lie behind the illegal products.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Many people see vaping as an alternative to smoking and it probably is, but that does not mean that it is, in some cases, any less destructive. Indeed, it has become an overnight epidemic, with vape shops popping up, including in Newtownards, the main town in my constituency. My concern has always been about the regulation of these pop-up shops; they come here and they disappear, only to pop up somewhere else.

Does the hon. Gentleman share that concern and agree that there must be a licence to sell vapes, which should be vigorously checked by the local council to ensure that laws are being adhered to, so that the things he has expressed concern about regarding children gaining access to vapes cannot happen?

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

It would not be a Westminster Hall debate without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. He anticipates two of the points that I am about to come on to in my speech—first, the popping up of these shops; and secondly, the need for licensing. So, I thank him for his intervention.

Legally supplied cigarettes have reached a price that puts them beyond the reach of children’s pocket money. That has been brought about by a raft of measures, including a ban on smaller packets, a ban on advertising, plain packaging, concealed displays and raising the legal age to buy cigarettes to 18. However, we have seen a worrying trend of children taking up the habit of vaping; the latest figures show that some 20% of children have tried vaping.

Those children have taken up the use of a product that is designed to help people to quit smoking, but—this is the important point—they themselves have never smoked. We know that the flavours, packaging and design of vapes are attractive to children, and that vapes are on very visible display in shops, in contrast to the cigarettes that they are designed to replace.

As with the sale of cigarettes, the sale of nicotine-related products is restricted to people over 18, but that restriction is clearly not working. To my mind, many of the measures that we introduced to curtail smoking need to be considered again in addressing this problem.

I have met the parents of children who are addicted to vaping. It is not uncommon to see children vaping in the street and the whole disposable vape industry is visibly responsible for the increase of litter on our streets, which local authorities face huge difficulties in dealing with and which increases the risk of fire in general waste collections.

The Local Government Association is deeply concerned about what to do with the almost 200 million disposable vapes that are thrown away every year in our country, and we should all be concerned about their environmental impact. However, my primary concern is the use and sale of illegal vapes, which do not always comply with our legislation and often have much higher concentrations of nicotine. They are sold with much higher capacities than their legal equivalents. It is estimated that a staggering one out of every three vapes sold in the UK is illicit. They are being sold with no care whatever for the user.

In the north-east, we have seen tragic cases of young children hospitalised as a result of using high-strength illegal vapes. The sale of these products is often concentrated in pop-up mini-markets, which are easily identifiable and distinguishable from reliable and traditional corner shops. Once upon a time criminality hid away, but these operators hide in plain sight. These shops appear quite rapidly, with blocked out windows, vivid lighting and a sparse supply of genuine goods on the shelf and are often, although not always, also selling illegal tobacco products.

I want to put on the record my thanks to Phoebe Abruzzese from The Northern Echo in Darlington for her campaigning journalism on this issue, and I am pleased to be working with her to highlight this problem.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He is right to want to see a clampdown on illegal vapes. They are very different from those produced by responsible manufacturers, which help adults quit smoking and thereby save lives. Does he agree that we should continue to encourage adult smokers to vape, and that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater over this? The responsible attitude is to allow people to use legal vapes while clamping down on the illicit ones that we see too many of.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; he raises a really important point. It is right that we encourage people to stop smoking and that smokers have an array of products available to help them, but those products must be legal. They must be supplied legally and made available in the right way.

Trading standards in Darlington, which is doing a tremendous job led by Shaun Trevor, has had much success over the past 18 months in targeting these traders. Products with a value of over £300,000 have been seized from some 23 retailers. Among those products were almost 20,000 packets of illegal cigarettes. Their sale would have resulted in a massive loss of revenue to the Exchequer—something that I am sure the Chancellor would be interested to learn about.

Last week, I went to visit a number of my local independent corner shops. They report that their tobacco sales have fallen off a cliff. In one instance, a trader of some 40 years reported that his tobacco sales had fallen from more than £7,000 a week to just £2,000. One the one hand, we can celebrate that as it will partly be the result of some people giving up smoking, but we know that the real underlying cause is that the trade has shifted to illegal sales in newly popped-up competition, which is robbing trade from our legitimate traders. Together with the footfall that tobacco sales bring to those shops and the massive loss in revenue, one retailer I visited estimates that his store is collecting nearly £200,000 less duty and VAT because of the sale of illegal tobacco. That is just one shop in one town. Imagine the scale of that lost revenue to the country as a whole.

I have shared my concerns about children vaping and about the availability of illegal products, but for me the most important aspect of this debate is the organised crime that sits behind the illegal supply and sale of these products. I know at first hand of the collaborative work going on between my local council and police in the sharing of intelligence, and I know that they are acutely aware of the damage caused to our community and the local economy. We have evidence locally that the funding for these shops is rooted in organised crime and money laundering. We know that, besides being supplied with illegal tobacco and vapes, children are being used as mules to fetch and carry the illegal products, which are stored off site rather than on the shop premises, or to act as agents by selling the vapes to their friends in the school playground. The most shocking local case was of a young person being groomed for sex with the enticement of illegal vapes. We should be wide awake to the risks in our community to young people who are exposed to exploitation in this way.

I will conclude by putting to the Minister some suggestions of things that can be done that I believe can help tackle these issues. We need to see a nationwide awareness campaign on illegal vapes for both adults and children. We need to see much-increased awareness in our schools of the safeguarding risks to young people posed by the sale and supply of these products. I would like to see all vape products in plain packaging and out of sight, just like tobacco. We need to fully explore a robust licensing system for both vapes and tobacco. We need greater collaboration on intelligence between our very small trading standards departments and police forces across the country. We need on-the-spot fines, set at punitive rates, to tackle the sale of these illegal vapes and tobaccos, and we need to see swifter premises closure orders.

I am sure that all Members are as concerned as I am about the issues that I have shared, and I have no doubt that more worrying stories will be shared throughout this debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to a plan that sees us clamp down on this danger.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called in the debate.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Labour, City of Durham 4:42, 16 January 2024

I thank Peter Gibson for securing this afternoon’s debate. I am sure he knows that I have been discussing this issue and campaigning against the sale and use of illegal vapes throughout this Parliament, and I am sure he is aware that I tabled several amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill in 2021, when it was in Committee. I understand that the hon. Member was not a member of that Public Bill Committee, but he must share my frustration with his party on this issue. The Tory Whips instructed Conservative Members to vote down my amendments in 2021—amendments that were very similar to the proposals in the King’s Speech last November. If my amendments had been voted for, it is fair to argue that fewer people—particularly young people—would be addicted to nicotine, and that as a result the tenor of this debate would be different.

“What ifs” aside, we need to see robust regulation and enforcement at local level. My constituency needs that, and I am shocked at the extent of illicit, non-compliant and even untraceable vaping products in my constituency. Over 6,000 illicit vapes were seized last year across County Durham, with three prosecutions linked to under-age sales and illicit vapes. I express my thanks to The Northern Echo for its investigation into that.

Although I welcome the Government’s announcement of an illicit vapes enforcement squad, we are now nine months on from that announcement, and unregulated and potentially dangerous products continue to fly off the shelves. All the while, the tobacco industry is making profits off the back of youth vaping rates. Cuts to trading standards have not helped, either. Trading standards workers in Durham are at full capacity, so when will they receive something from the £30 million that was announced in October to help them do their job?

We need the Government to be bold. We need to stop rogue vape traders in their tracks, and we must ensure that the sale of illicit vape products does not deter smokers from switching to vaping. I welcome any Member’s raising the issue of the use and sale of illegal vapes. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was pleased to be part of a rare example of cross-party unity in The Northern Echo but, at the end of the day, what matters in this place is how we vote on policies. If an issue similar to that posed by the Health and Social Care Act 2022 arises in the future, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and Members who are about to contribute to the debate will put their constituents before their party Whips.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 4:45, 16 January 2024

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Gibson on securing today’s debate on a very important issue.

On the face of it, nicotine vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking. It is also one of the most effective tools for quitting smoking. However, I believe that before I speak about illicit vapes it is worth noting that although vaping has helped adults to quit smoking, we do not know for sure its long-term health effects and have only an early understanding of the kinds of health problems that vaping poses. The Royal College of Physicians noted that some cancer-causing substances present in tobacco smoke have also been detected in e-cigarette vapour, which raises the possibility that long-term use of vapes may increase the risk of smoking-related diseases. However, the risks are obviously much lower than those posed by smoking.

Vaping is becoming more and more popular with young people. According to Action on Smoking and Health, over 20% of children between the ages of 11 and 17 tried vaping in 2023—up from 15.8% in 2022. There is potential for the major health disaster of a new generation of young people getting hooked on nicotine. Although nicotine itself is not the problem per se, the different substances found in e-liquids cause concern. To analyse the real contents of popular vapes, the Inter Scientific laboratory, which offers regulatory and testing services, looked at a selection of vapes confiscated from school pupils in the UK. It examined them to ensure that the UK tobacco and related products regulations were met, but it found high levels of metals in the e-liquid that far exceeded safe exposure levels. Results from the 18 vapes analysed showed 2.4 times the safe level of lead, 9.6 times the safe level of nickel and 6.6 times the safe level of chromium. Obviously there was a low dataset, but it shows that the regulations on vapes are not being met in this country.

Then we come to illegal vapes. Trading standards seized over 2 million illicit vapes across England between 2022 and 2023. In East Sussex, over 3,000 illegal vapes were seized in 2020. I believe that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Illicit vapes are particularly popular with under-age consumers, because they are cheap and can be bought in shops that are less likely to check ID. Research from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute suggests that a third of products sold in UK shops are likely to be illegal. Given the levels of metals found in legal vapes, I dread to think what the levels might be in the illegal ones. The situation is staggering, and young people are often unaware of what they are actually buying.

How do we tackle this problem? The solution lies in the method that we used to reduce smoking rates in children between 2000 and 2021. By reducing vaping rates in children, we can also help to address the scourge of illicit vapes. ASH’s response to the Government’s recent call for evidence on youth vaping is fantastic. I do not have time to go into the detail of its suggestions for tackling youth vaping, but it emphasises four key policy levers at the Government’s disposal, and I am sure the Minister is considering its recommendations.

I am glad that the Government have set out plans to introduce a tobacco and vapes Bill in this parliamentary Session, and I hope it will address many of the issues highlighted in today’s debate, because that will help to protect the health of children and adults in Hastings and Rye, now and in the future.

Photo of Mark Eastwood Mark Eastwood Conservative, Dewsbury 4:50, 16 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. First, I thank my hon. Friend Peter Gibson for securing this important debate, which gives me the opportunity to highlight the seriousness of the use of illegal vapes and cigarettes in my constituency.

A week before Christmas, I was accompanied by a team of enforcement officers on a test purchase exercise in Dewsbury town centre. I put on record my thanks to the team for their professionalism and ingenuity. During the exercise, we discovered over 20 retail outlets selling illicit cigarettes and vapes across Dewsbury. Fourteen of them were selling illegal disposable vapes, one of which was on sale for £10—but it was £10 for 3,500 puffs. The maximum legal tank size equates to about 600 puffs, so £10 spent on that product would be equivalent to almost six legal vapes. Unlike a legal vape, however, this one had not had its chemical constituents approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, so we have no idea what was in it.

Here are some further shocking findings from our investigation. That product was the smallest puff size available to purchase that day. Another product, available for £12, promised 4,000 puffs. Another claimed to provide 9,000 puffs for £13. For £17, two disposables claiming to provide 15,000 puffs and 24 ml tank sizes were available. The maximum legal tank size is 2 ml. Almost half the shops that sold these illicit vapes had them on display. They either did not care or did not realise that the products were illegal. The whole exercise was an eye-opener, but there have been several high-profile incidents involving the sale of illicit cigarettes and vapes in Dewsbury. Last October, £100,000-worth of such products were seized by West Yorkshire police and trading standards.

Last July, an independent report found that nearly a fifth by value and volume of the vaping industry appeared to be illicit in 2022 and that almost a third of e-liquid consumed in disposable vapes failed product compliance rules on nicotine concentrations and volume limits. It is clear that the industry finds itself in a challenging position but, in forging a path forward, it is important that we do not lose sight of other key facts. Scientific research indicates that vaping is less dangerous than smoking, with up to 95% fewer harmful chemicals in the emissions. The legal vape industry has had a positive impact on reducing smoking, converting 1.5 million people away from cigarettes. I have given up smoking in the last 12 months, and I used nicotine patches, but I recognise that there are other ways to stop smoking, including legal vapes. From a health benefit point of view, it is important that we recognise that aspect.

The legal vaping industry, like any other industry, needs protecting from criminal activity and illegal competition. There must also be a balance between discouraging young people from vaping and continuing to provide a route away from smoking for adults. Getting the regulation wrong could further undermine the Government’s smokefree ambitions and would arguably give a significant boost to the illicit trade. I therefore urge them to carefully consider the implications of any proposed legislation and changes to regulations in the future, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to this important debate.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 4:54, 16 January 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Gibson on securing this important debate.

Hon. Members will not be surprised by my presence or to hear my stance on this issue. For more than a year now I have championed the fight against youth vaping, an epidemic that is spreading like wildfire. These sleek, colourful contraptions, once touted merely as a smoking cessation tool, have become ubiquitous. They are not just in shops, but litter our streets and are hidden away in our children’s bedrooms and classrooms. According to a recent NASUWT survey, a staggering 85% of teachers reported vaping as an issue among their students. Teachers in my constituency have spoken of pupils struggling to concentrate because of their nicotine addiction and having to leave lessons for vape breaks—let us remember that these are not hardened junkies but schoolchildren.

I propose a number of solutions to this growing problem, including banning the sale of disposable vapes, removing them from public displays in shops and banning the bright colours and sweet flavours, which prolong the addictive effects and are so attractive to children. I welcome the Government’s work and commitments in this area, and I particularly thank the Minister for her commitment to stopping children vaping and her broader commitment to children and their health. However, we need to go further, and I would like the Government to extend the existing restrictions on cigarettes to vaping in public places to ensure that no one, least of all children, becomes an unwitting victim of second-hand vapour.

Coupled with that, we must impose tougher regulations on the advertising and marketing of vaping products. I have previously spoken out against the sponsoring of sports teams and the pervasive advertising that glamourises vapes. I would like to see these products taken off the side of Transport for London buses, off prominent displays in corner shops and away from sports stadiums. Instead, they should be put discreetly away behind the counter, as the medical type of smoking cessation device they are supposed to be.

Moving on to the specifics of today’s debate on illegal vapes, vapes can be illegal for one of two reasons. They are either illegally composed and perhaps have no self-extinguishing mechanism, excessive quantities of nicotine or more puffs than allowed. However, they may also contain harmful toxic chemicals. Last spring, Lincolnshire police took a selection of vapes from children and tested them. These are just some of the chemicals they found: diethylene glycol diacetate, aviptadil, 2-methoxyethyl acetate, poster varnish, Indian snakeroot and antifreeze. Those were all being inhaled by children using vapes in Sleaford.

The other way vapes can be illegal is that they can be sold illegally to children under the age of 18. Indeed, vapes can be illegal in both the ways I have mentioned. Newspapers locally are reporting an example of a police officer in Sleaford who recently stepped into a local shop to stop illegal vapes being sold to children. Those products were illegal not just because they were being sold to children, but because they contained much more than they ought to.

The next question is what we can do about this. We have talked about ways in which we can tackle the use of vapes. I welcome the vapes enforcement squad the Government put together with £3 million earlier this year, but we need more. There is no registration scheme for selling vapes, in the way there is for alcohol and tobacco. I would like to see a registration scheme for vapes, tied to alcohol and tobacco, specifically to disincentivise unscrupulous sellers. If they lose the vaping licence, they would also lose the alcohol and tobacco licence. I would also like to see an increase in on-the-spot fines, from £2,500 to £10,000, so that there is a significant disincentive to this behaviour. Let us face it, these people are making money out of this, and that is why they are doing it—they are making money out of selling illegal things to children that will harm them.

Another idea is an import tax. It has been proposed to me that one challenge facing Border Force is that vapes are not subject to excise. If they were subject to excise controls, Border Force would be able to intercept some of the illegal vapes. That is much more challenging because there is no excise duty on vapes. Also on the issue of tax, I am a Tory and would normally advocate cutting as many taxes as possible, but I think there is a place to put tax on vaping devices. Even with tax, they would still be potentially much cheaper relative to their nicotine content than cigarettes, making them a cheaper option for a genuine adult smoker who wishes to quit, but they would be more expensive for children, taking them out of the realms of pocket money.

In summary, this issue demands bold action, as it did when I first stood up to discuss it a year ago. I urge the Government and all hon. Members to join me in ensuring that vapes are used as a cessation device, as they are supposed to be. Only by toughening our response to a rogue industry can we protect our children from the suffocating grip of addiction.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 5:00, 16 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. I am grateful to Peter Gibson for securing the debate and for the powerful way he introduced the topic.

Like Dr Johnson, I have made no secret of my lack of enthusiasm for vapes—specifically disposable vapes. I have held my own debates on the topic, and I have supported others, including the hon. Lady, so I am pleased to speak today, because we need urgent action on these things.

We have heard about smoking cessation a couple of times during the debate. Smoking cessation is absolutely important, and we should all take it very seriously, but disposable vapes are not risk-free, as has been pointed out. There are other, more useful ways of supporting smoking cessation—for instance, reusable vapes, which are not seen as attractive to young people. However we look at it, and whether they are illicit or not, disposable vapes are harmful, particularly to young people and our environment.

The environmental side of things is what first caused me to become interested in disposable vapes. That was thanks to Laura Young, better known as “Less Waste Laura”, who is a student from my constituency. Laura has worked tirelessly to rid our streets, parks and beaches of the discarded plastic, which is so familiar to us all, and the pollution that has become a torrent in recent years. These apparently disposable vapes are almost never properly disposed of; in fact, the way they are constructed means it is almost impossible to properly dispose of them even if someone wants to, which is quite unlikely, considering that this product is sold on the basis of its easily disposable nature.

It is a great pity—this is embarrassing for it—that the Labour party, propped up by the Tory party on East Renfrewshire Council, is so unwilling to support anything the SNP supports that it has, not once but twice, refused to support a motion to ban disposable vapes locally, putting the council out of step with almost every other local authority in Scotland and with the evidence of the harm that such devices do.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

Does the hon. Lady not accept that properly and legally produced disposable vapes provide an attractive alternative for adults to stop smoking and thereby save lives? Some companies, although this is not happening a great deal, can now almost fully recycle the components of disposable e-cigarettes. Does she accept that there is a danger that we move from illicit vapes and start targeting those that would be welcome for adult smokers to switch to?

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

No, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition at all. That is absolutely wrong-headed. We can see in front of our eyes that these products are so attractive to young people that they are hooking them in—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is mumbling from his chair. If I can finish my speech, I will set out for him that these products are hooking young people in and getting them addicted, and some of these young people then go on to start smoking. That is far from the situation he laid out, and we should take a very serious attitude to these products.

I have spoken about the harms caused by legal vapes to the planet, whether it is plastic, overuse of precious metals or fires. We have heard today about the impact that these substances have on the young people who ingest them, which should be of significant concern to us. Vaping is popular among young people. Since 2021, there has been a more than sevenfold increase in the number of 11 to 17-year-olds vaping and using disposable vapes rather than reusable ones. These devices are colourful and attractive, with snazzy names and fruity flavours. Vaping has risen so rapidly among children that one in five are now using disposable vapes.

We are not speaking about a smoking cessation mechanism. We are speaking about something that health professionals increasingly warn about. They are increasingly worried about a generation of young people who are hooked on nicotine. As the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has said:

“Youth vaping is fast becoming an epidemic”.

Despite all that, and despite the fact that the public would be concerned to know all these things, we have this stream of illicit, and other, vapes on our streets. We know that local shops are the most likely source for young people to come by them, and we have heard quite a lot about that today. There is also the online space, which is a source of significant concern to me. Unregulated and untested products are coming via the online space, and we have no idea what harms will be caused to the young people consuming them.

I met a business owner from my area last week, and she talked me through her concerns about illegal medical products—obviously not proper medical products. She showed me how she was targeted by online accounts pushing these goods to her. She is a responsible professional and she resisted, but let us be clear that there are many and complex routes by which these illicit vapes arrive here, just as there are for illicit medical products. All those routes need to be closed down, and they need to be closed down now. Whatever the disposable vape, it causes harm.

We know that there are significant kinds of harm being caused with the flavours and the colours. We have heard from Sally-Ann Hart about the worries that Action on Smoking and Health spoke about. We are hearing more and more about vape use being glamourised online, and when people under the legal age cannot purchase vapes legally, they are purchasing them illegally or purchasing illegal ones.

The public health messaging on this issue is not as clear as it should be. Gareth Johnson tried to tell me that vapes would be a perfectly reasonable way to expect adults to support themselves in smoking cessation, but that is not right and that should not be what the public health messaging tells us. We heard from the hon. Member for Darlington that vapes are a gateway to other, sometimes very serious, concerns and to riskier behaviour, such as smoking and substance abuse. He eloquently outlined the even greater and more significant harms that can be caused.

These things are arriving in huge numbers. I am grateful to the Advertising Standards Authority, which met with me after the most recent vape-related debate I spoke in. It is doing significant work trying to uphold the ban on advertising in various places, including on social media, of nicotine-containing cigarettes that are not licensed as medicines. None the less, Members may have seen adverts that would cause them to think that was not the case, and that is part of this torrent and this pushing of vapes, which needs our urgent attention.

Indeed, vapes need attention across the world. Let us be clear that the scale of the problem and the potential harms to young people and the planet should cause us deep worry. I read a really interesting piece by Chris Kirkham from Reuters last month about the owners of Elf Bar, which is a company with roots in China. Elf Bar products are very popular here, and the company is now, according to Reuters, flooding the US with illegal vapes—ones not covered by Food and Drug Administration regulations.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

I am going to make progress, but if I have time, I would be happy to let the hon. Gentleman come in later.

Elf Bar is simply ignoring those regulations to get its products to market. In the UK, it is taking a different approach and complying with regulations so that it can—one presumes—sell the maximum number of its products. That means that we need different regulations that will stop the surge in young people vaping. Of course, if we banned all disposable vapes, it would be far easier to identify the illicit ones, because all vapes would be illicit. It is far better that we close down the distributors and that we do so in a wholehearted way.

I have spoken before about my own concerns about sports advertising of vapes. I spoke about Blackburn Rovers, and a 15-year-old footballer, who came on as a substitute in their FA cup win recently, made history as their youngest ever player. However, his shirt did not have the club sponsor, Totally Wicked, on it. Blackburn Rovers said that, as the legal vaping age in the UK is 18, under-18s cannot wear that logo—but they can still see it, because it is displayed on everyone else’s strip. We would not want tobacco companies advertising on sports strips. We would not want whisky, beer or cider companies on sports strips. None of those things should be acceptable to us, and advertising for vapes should not be acceptable to us either. If we are serious about dealing with the harms that young people experience because of vaping, we should expect sports clubs to take that seriously too. The claims by both Blackburn Rovers and Totally Wicked at the time that vaping had a positive and proven role in supporting the reduction of smoking are simply not credible when we think of the young people who are interested in football.

I will bring my remarks to a conclusion. I noticed recently that some vaping companies are actually going out and looking for sportspeople to sponsor. I think that is hugely dangerous and hugely unwelcome. I ask the Minister to give us some of her thoughts on that matter in her response.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

Order. I am conscious of the fact that there may be a vote shortly. Have you finished?

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

Okay. There may be a vote so I may have to suspend proceedings. I call Preet Kaur Gill.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health) 5:10, 16 January 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank Peter Gibson for securing this important debate, and the many colleagues who have made excellent points, including my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy who is a great campaigner on this issue.

Many Members have focused their remarks on the impact of vaping on children, and they are absolutely right to do so. The Opposition recognise the value of vapes as a stop-smoking tool. They have their place. The chief medical officer put it bluntly:

“If you smoke, vaping is much safer;
if you don’t smoke, don’t vape”.

But the CMO has also been blunt about the epidemic rise in youth vaping in recent years. Nicotine addiction is in no one’s interest apart from the companies that profit from it. Certainly no child should be vaping. We do not even know some of the long-term risks of the ingredients used in vapes, and certainly not when inhaled by young people whose lungs and brains are still developing.

However, I am afraid to say that the Government have been asleep at the wheel. In 2021, as we have heard, Labour voted for an amendment to the Health and Care Act 2022 to crack down on the marketing of vapes to children. Since then, as Labour has found, the number of children aged 11 to 17 who are vaping regularly has more than trebled. That is more than 140,000 British children. Meanwhile, one in five children have now tried vaping. Does the Minister regret that her Government and MPs voted against the amendment in 2021?

The issue is that it is now 2024 and we still have no legislation in place. It is bad enough that so many children are using these products, but, as other Members have said, it is even worse when we consider how many products on the market are illegal in their own right. As the chief medical officer has warned, those products can contain dangerous chemicals such as lead and nickel. Some contain nicotine when claiming they do not, or harmful tetrahydrocannabinol chemicals found in cannabis. To be clear, in most cases that amounts to a failure in enforcing existing regulations, and it really is shocking.

Last year, Inter Scientific and the BBC conducted an analysis of vapes confiscated from schoolchildren, and found that the vast majority did not meet UK product regulations and were actually illegal. In a separate analysis of 300 products seized by various trading standards around the country, they found that 88% were non-compliant with UK regulations; 23% had a nicotine strength over the legal limit; 15% contained lead, which when inhaled can damage children’s central nervous system and brain development; 100% contained nickel; and 33% contained nicotine, despite being marketed at 0%, which absurdly means that they can be sold to children. Can the Minister tell us what she will do to crack down on the influx of illegal vapes so that dangerous products are not falling into the hands of our young children?

From speaking to experts in the industry, I have heard that there has been an influx of illegal vapes into the United Kingdom in recent years. One expert I consulted said they think that around 6 million illegal vape products have flooded the UK in the last 12 to 24 months. Can the Minister comment on why the UK seems to be targeted more than many other countries, and where she thinks these products are coming from? Until now, UK regulations have largely inoculated us from public health scares such as the spate of hospitalisations from popcorn lung in the United States, but does she share my concern that if we do not get a grip on illegal products flooding our markets, we could face something similar here? Lastly, can she comment on what she has learned from the Government’s consultation about the percentage of vapes circulating in the UK that are illegal under the 2016 regulations? If it is anything like the 88% found by Inter Scientific, we have a very big problem.

A glaring issue that many have identified is enforcement. As we all know, trading standards is stretched and Border Force is evidently not stopping the import of illegal vapes in sufficient numbers. However, the Government have not made their job easy. One issue is the confusing regulations. I know that the Government have said they will act to close the loophole that means that while it is illegal to sell vapes to children, it is fine to hand them out. We have heard less from the Government on the fact that it is also currently legal to sell nicotine-free vapes to under-18s, which is of serious concern. Labour has been vocal on this issue. As I have flagged, these 0%-nicotine vapes in fact often do contain nicotine or other harmful chemicals. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will take action to ban those vapes being sold to children? It strikes me as a blatant loophole that is giving unscrupulous companies scope to hook young children on their products as a gateway to addiction. These 0%-nicotine vapes are out of the scope of the regulations, meaning they do not need to be registered with the MHRA. Will the Minister now require all manufacturers to notify vape products regardless of nicotine content to the MHRA? This would allow for a complete database of products where currently it is not possible to say which products are legal or illegal, which really undermines enforcement action.

Speaking of the MHRA, we must also recognise that the relevant authorities are not always empowered to do what is needed to crack down on those breaking the rules. It strikes me as a serious shortcoming that as long as producers complete notification requirements with the regulator, their product is allowed to go on the UK market without being tested as a whole. The MHRA—the regulator—does not have powers to test products to determine whether they are even compliant with what producers claim are in them, nor to remove notifications once published.

The fact that under this Government children are using vapes with nicotine in them is pretty scandalous, given what we know about the lack of regulations. I say that because when the producer of Elf Bars was found to be selling products that had larger tank sizes than allowed, the regulations did not provide the MHRA with the power to remove the product from the market, as the product notifications said that it was compliant. That is farcical.

This matter is a huge concern not just for me, but for most Members across the House. Will the Minister say whether she is looking at this as part of the legislation? Will she consider allowing the MHRA to use notification fees for testing and enforcement and giving it the powers to remove notifications from publication and, if necessary, take products off the market? Likewise, does she believe that Border Force has the powers that it actually needs? Will the Minister finally tackle the issue of youth vaping, as we have heard about from many Members, by doing what Labour has called for for years and banning vapes from being branded and advertised to appeal to children? We have all seen the displays in our local off licences, with flavours like gummy bear and unicorn shake, looking like colourfully packaged pick ‘n’ mix products at pocket-money prices. These really do need to be banned.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Lady is making some very good points about the regulations that need to be brought in to protect children. I do not think anybody thinks that the colours and flavours are not there in some ways to attract children—how many adults are going to want a unicorn milkshake-flavoured vape, whatever that tastes like? On that point specifically, would the Labour party support legislation brought in by the Government to ban all but one colour and to severely restrict the flavours available?

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

What has been marketed at children, definitely, is the different flavours. However, I appreciate that adults do choose different flavours as part of their whole smoking cessation, so we need to look at the evidence in the round once we are looking at the Bill. I would be keen to hear at what the Government say on that and to look at the evidence base. We need to look at the ingredients, the make-up of colours and how we get those flavours—it is about what those ingredients actually mean. We have to ensure that we have a proper evidence base on that issue.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I was talking to an industry representative about the issue of flavours in particular, and he told me that when a smoker decides to quit, they often start with a tobacco-flavoured vape. When their sense of smell and taste improves because they have stopped smoking, they then no longer like the taste of the tobacco vapes, so they move on to cherry cola or some other flavour. That actually can persist their addiction. The concern about removing the flavours is that instead of stopping using the vapes, people will continue—

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

Order. Interventions are meant to be short. The hon. Lady has already spoken, and we still have the Minister to come. She requires 10 minutes at least, and it is now 5.19 pm. I suggest to the Opposition spokesperson that she makes an end to her speech fairly quickly.

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

The next Labour Government would come down like a ton of bricks on companies profiting at the expense of our children’s health. As part of our child-health action plan, we will crack down on companies peddling vapes to children. We will work with local councils and the NHS to ensure that they are being used as a stop-smoking aid, rather than as a new form of smoking. We will tackle health inequalities, get serious about prevention and ensure that children born in Britain today are part of the healthiest generation that ever lived. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:20, 16 January 2024

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Sir Mark. I thank my hon. Friend Peter Gibson, and all my hon. Friends who are here today. It highlights the importance with which the Government Benches view this issue.

I would just assure Preet Kaur Gill that all of the issues that she has mentioned are indeed top priorities for me. I am on the warpath when it comes to children vaping. Whether it is nicotine-free, cherry-cola flavoured, legal or illegal, children should not be vaping. I will bring forward, as soon as possible, the results of the consultation, and then the smoking legislation, and all colleagues will be able to see that. However, I pay tribute to all my hon. Friends, who are here in droves in this Chamber today to make known their very serious concerns about the protection of children. I also pay tribute to Mary Kelly Foy, who has done so much to try and promote this issue and to ensure that children are kept safe.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about the work that we are doing to tackle the use and sale specifically of illicit vapes, and I am grateful to all colleagues for this being largely a cross-party issue, where we are all on the same side, and I very much hope that we will keep it that way. Like so many parents right across the country, we are all incredibly worried about the damage that is potentially being done to children’s bodies by vapes—particularly illegal vapes.

One of the main health risks posed by vapes is from their highly addictive nicotine content. Young brains are more susceptible to the effects of nicotine, and so the risk of becoming addicted is greater for younger people compared to adults.

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

I will not give way, I am sorry; there is no time left and I want to make my points.

It is appalling and unacceptable when businesses knowingly and deliberately encourage children to use a product that was designed for adults to quit smoking. Often sold at pocket-money prices, easy to use and widely available, disposable vapes are the product of choice for children. Over two thirds of current youth vapers use disposable products—all illegally, because they are under age. And, as if we needed another reason to regulate, 5 million disposable vapes are either littered or thrown away in general waste every week. That has quadrupled over the last year.

Our duty is clear: to protect all kids from vaping while their lungs and brains are still developing. Businesses are shamelessly using bright colours, alluring packaging and attractive flavours, as hon. Friends and colleagues have said, like “candy bubblegum” and “blueberry razz”, in Coke-can shaped packaging, right next to the sweet counter, in the full knowledge that our children are going to become addicted to nicotine. This cannot go on.

Businesses should abide by the existing regulations setting product standards, including prohibitions on certain ingredients and restrictions on nicotine strength, bottle size limits and advertising. Products should be registered with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to be sold legally in the UK. Any product that is not notified and does not meet our high standards should not be sold to anyone, let alone children.

Unregulated vapes pose a massive risk because they circumvent the high standards of regulation, contain unknown ingredients, as colleagues across the Chamber have said, and stronger nicotine, and are often made available to children through black-market channels. Illicit vapes may contain dangerous metals such as lead, nickel and chromium, and contents such as antifreeze and poster varnish—unbelievable, extraordinary contents. We have no idea what frequent inhalation of those does to adult lungs, let alone still-developing lungs.

Independent research suggests that there is a direct link between the rise in children vaping and the flood of illegal, non-compliant vapes coming to our shores. That is why, to keep vapes out of our children’s hands, we must first enforce our regulations to stamp out the sale and supply of illicit and underage vapes, and, secondly, educate our children about how those products will hurt them.

On enforcement, we have learned much from our successful campaign to tackle illicit tobacco. Targeted enforcement saw the overall consumption of illegal tobacco plummet from 17 billion cigarettes 25 years ago to 3 billion cigarettes last year. In April, building on this success, we announced the formation of a new, specialised illicit vaping enforcement team, named Operation Joseph, to identify and seize illicit vapes on entry to England through the seven ports that have seen increased illegal activity. We are giving National Trading Standards £3 million of new funding over two years for the sole purpose of getting illicit products off our shelves. Across the country, it is diligently testing products for dangerous substances, and carrying out test purchases online and in shops. Recently, I had the great pleasure of meeting some of its officers in action—people such as David Hunt, a senior officer and illicit tobacco lead in Hackney, who is doing incredible work to ensure there is a fair and honest market. As a result of National Trading Standards’ work across the country, 2.1 million vapes were seized by trading standards officers in England between 2022 and 2023 alone.

My message to people and businesses that sell illegal vapes is clear: they should stop it right now. If they do not, they may receive an unlimited fine or a custodial sentence of up to two years. However, there is no room for complacency, and I am not naive to the scale of the challenge. That is why in October we announced an additional £30 million per year for our enforcement agencies over the next five years, to support their efforts to extinguish the illicit trade in tobacco and vapes. The additional funding will give agencies the resources they need to catch criminals and rogue traders.

Cracking down on illicit products entering the country is critical, but such efforts must go hand in hand with educating children about the dangers of these products to prevent their use in the first place. Over the past two years, we have taken a number of steps to increase the training resources and support available to teachers in schools, to update the curriculum to include the health risks of vaping, and to publish new online content on the potential risks of vaping for young people. We have also written to police forces right across England to ensure that dedicated school liaison officers are keeping vapes away from the playground as much as possible.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on our wider plans to reduce the overall rates of youth vaping. As I said at the start, I will set out much more detail in the near future. As colleagues know, we recently consulted on a range of measures to reduce the appeal, availability and affordability of vapes to children. Our consultation has also considered what further measures we could take to strengthen enforcement, such as by introducing new fixed penalty notices. We are in the process of finalising our response to the consultation and will update Parliament shortly on the measures we are taking forward.

As I said at the start of my remarks, we all have a duty to protect our children from under-age vaping as their lungs and brains continue to develop. We do not yet know about the long-term damage being caused to their lungs and brains, but I dread to think about it, so we will be ruthless towards those who disregard our safeguards and undermine our work to protect children’s health. I am on the warpath where vaping is concerned, and I urge all children to stop vaping. I look forward to working with colleagues across parties and across Government to make youth vaping a thing of the past.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 5:29, 16 January 2024

I am delighted to have led the debate this afternoon and to have heard from the Minister. I was pleased to hear all the contributions from Members across the Chamber, and it is clear that there is cross-party and political-free concern about the issue of our children’s welfare. I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend Dr Johnson is here, given that she is a consultant paediatrician and has campaigned long and hard on this issue. I was particularly interested in her idea about bringing in some excise duties as a way to stop illegal vapes.

I am delighted to have heard from the Minister. She stole the words that I had written down—I was going to say that she was on the warpath. She is clearly—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).