Examination of Witnesses

Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:05 am ar 30 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Matthew Shanks and Patrick Roach gave evidence.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley 10:35, 30 Ebrill 2024

Q The third panel consists of Matthew Shanks, the chair of the Secondary Headteacher Reference Group, and Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT. We have until 11.10 am for this session. Will the two witnesses state their names and titles for the benefit of the record, please?

Matthew Shanks:

I am Matthew Shanks, the chair of the Secondary Headteacher Reference Group. I am also CEO of a MAT or multi-academy trust in Devon, Education South West.

Patrick Roach:

Good morning. I am Patrick Roach. I am general secretary of NASUWT, the teachers’ union.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

We will move straight into the questions. Preet Kaur Gill will ask the first question, and then I will move to the Minister for her first question.

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

Q Thank you, Chair, and I thank the witnesses for giving evidence today. First, is under-age smoking or vaping the bigger issue in schools today, and what is the impact on education, behaviour and so on? Secondly, will the measures in the Bill to restrict sales of vaping products to children under 18 work, in your opinion?

Matthew Shanks:

It is an interesting question, whether vaping or smoking is more popular among children in schools. All I can say is that it has increased in the past three or four years. We see evidence of vaping; it is more difficult to catch children vaping, because of the size of the vapes, the fact that the smell is slightly different and does not set off smoke alarms in the same way, and so on. I think it is fair to say that smoking and vaping are still as popular as they were among younger children in certain areas, and vaping is being seen to be a safe alternative.

The marketing of vapes in different flavours and colours makes them akin to a progression from chewing gum for some families—with bubble gum flavours and so on. There is also anecdotal evidence of parents talking about, “If it’s grapefruit, it must be safe.” There is that evidence around it as well out there—because of the way in which vapes are marketed, and if you see them in shops, they seem safe and okay.

With behaviour, the size of vapes makes it very difficult to admonish children, because they can hide them very easily. They can look like mini hard drive sticks—I think that is deliberate targeting in how they are marketed, with the cleverness of it. Certainly in terms of behaviour, it is something else that we are dealing with, when we say to a child, a teenager, “You’ve been vaping”, but they say, “No, I haven’t”—there is nowhere for us then to go, which immediately sets up an issue.

The earlier question about toilets was interesting, because children tend to vape in toilets. It is easier for them to vape in toilets than it was for them to smoke in toilets. You just need to see people on public transport vaping—it is easy for it to dissipate and disappear quickly. So, yes, I would say that vaping is a real issue in schools for children.

Patrick Roach:

I support fully what Matthew has just said. I do not think that it is an either/or; the reality is that smoking is a threat to children and young people, in terms of their health and wellbeing and their ability to participate and progress educationally, but so too is vaping.

The NASUWT, at the start of this academic year, published our own research into vaping in schools from the perspective of teachers and school leaders, and it very much reinforces what Matthew has just said, in that vaping is pretty much predominant as an activity taking place among secondary-aged pupils. But we are also seeing teachers reporting pupils vaping from as early as 10 years of age, so the primary phase is also impacted. Three quarters of teachers report a significant increase in the participation in vaping by pupils in their schools, so we are seeing an upward curve in respect of vaping activity within schools.

On the issues that have just been mentioned about the difficulty that schools have in detecting and controlling this kind of behaviour, the way in which vape products are available to pupils is that they are masquerading as hard drives, as highlighter sticks or as other things that it would be legitimate for a pupil to bring into school. This is not like a situation in which you catch a pupil with a packet of cigarettes and you confiscate it; first, you have to identify what on earth it is that that pupil has. At the end of the day, good order in schools is dependent upon there being trust and respectful relationships between teachers and students. You cannot go around every moment of every day asking pupils to turn out their pockets and then inspecting what is in them.

The reality is that we are seeing the impact of vaping not just on pupils’ health, because we are seeing pupils who are presenting as ill as a result of the overuse of vaping products—although, in fact, all of it is overuse—and therefore becoming ill in schools, but on educational participation, progression and achievement. When pupils are diving off into the toilets to vape, that interrupts teaching and learning. When pupils are late arriving at school, perhaps because they have been vaping en route, that impacts on pupils’ learning. We are also seeing bullying behaviours within schools because, quite often, vaping products are being informally circulated, exchanged or acquired. Therefore, it becomes another source of behavioural challenges for teachers and head teachers. So, from a teacher’s perspective, vaping is a serious issue within schools, and one that we are pleased that this Bill is seeking to address.

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

Q Thank you so much for being here, and also particularly for the work that the NASUWT has done in terms of the impact on schools. Could you expand on that a bit further? I have done a couple of visits ahead of this Bill. I met enforcement officers, for example, who gave me anecdotal evidence that teachers say that pupils will return to the classroom with their eyes spinning and unable to concentrate because of the heady nature of whatever it is they have just been vaping or smoking. There was another anecdote about a school where children decided to drink the vape fluid and the school actually had to have a sort of emergency evacuation as a result of that.

Could you therefore expand on that, in terms of the specific health impacts and, at the one end, the ability of children to concentrate on the class when they are spaced out on vapes, and, at the other end, the very real risk to children from doing something stupid with a vape that was entirely unintended, with disastrous consequences?

Patrick Roach:

I very much appreciate your remarks about the research that the NASUWT has undertaken. We come at the problem of vaping from the point of view of our members in classrooms, in schools the length and breadth of the country. What do teachers need in order to be able to teach effectively and what do they believe that pupils need in order to learn effectively? They need good order in the classroom.

My perspective is not that of a medical practitioner or of someone wanting to assume that I have the knowledge about the impact of vaping on a child’s physical development. Our concern is the impact on a child’s educational development, participation and achievement. The reality is that everything you have mentioned there is absolutely right, whether it is about the way in which vaping products might be unintentionally used by pupils; or about how they seek to conceal them about their person; or, indeed, the drinking of vaping fluids, as if somehow that will get the high without necessarily being detected; or about the use of vaping products as a stimulant, which impacts not only on concentration but on behaviour and, indeed, on a child’s wellbeing in the classroom.

Matthew has already referenced the difficulty of detecting vapes sometimes, because they can dissipate very quickly; and they can also trigger fire alarms in schools. We have had plenty of examples of teachers and headteachers reporting that their school has had to evacuate the building not just on one or two occasions in a day but multiple times—five or six occasions. That is a loss of learning not just for one pupil or class of pupils but the entire school. We are really concerned about the impact of all that.

Teachers are not just concerned about a child’s educational development, though; they are also concerned about a child’s wellbeing in the round. Teachers are reporting the very damaging impact that vaping can have on a child’s mental and physical development, just as smoking can. That is one of the reasons we have spoken out—and we are pleased that the Government have responded—to say that we need to be doing more to strengthen the enforcement of rules around vaping, access to it and the availability for school-age pupils. We need to do as much as we possibly can to prevent any school-age pupil from getting access to vaping products, whether in or outside school. We are pleased that the Bill seeks to do just that.

Matthew Shanks:

I absolutely echo and reinforce what Patrick has said. Also, as school leaders we are looking after teachers, but we are caring for families as well. The Bill will help families to understand that it is not okay for their children to vape. Anecdotally we have parents saying to us that they let children vape at home, because it is better than them smoking or being out on the streets; parents do not see the harm in it. It is really important that that is recognised. The banning of tobacco sale was interesting in terms of the prescription of it; I would posit that at the moment vaping is seen as safe by the general public.

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

Q I wonder if you can develop some of the points you have made, which have been very useful. I am hearing anecdotally about issues in schools where the addiction of children to these vapes is itself causing a problem, because the children are unable to sit in the classroom and have to go out to vape, with whatever excuse is made, so that they then feel able to come back to the classroom, such is the level of their addiction to these products. If I may go beyond that slightly, what are your views on the way these things are promoted—for instance, on our particular concern about vape companies advertising on sports strips and in sports stadiums, and the impact on the same young people who are so addicted?

Matthew Shanks:

I completely agree. The way in which vapes are marketed—the colours, flavours and so on—and the places where they are marketed suggest to people that they are safe. The fact that they are put forward as a “safe” alternative to cigarettes, the fact that parents use them and the fact that there are lots of colourful vape shops open in high streets: all those aspects promote the idea that vaping is okay.

At the same time, getting into a child’s mindset—we have all been there, as children—we like to break the rules and feel like we are pushing at boundaries. We know that it is not okay, but it is made okay. I would suggest that more children engage in vaping than in cigarette smoking, because they are not sure what the harmful effects are. That is the danger in it. I do think it leads on, because the younger children vape, but by the time they are 16 or 17, vaping might not be cool any more, so they go on to cigarettes or other things.

Anecdotally, we have heard of schools down in the south-west where people are putting cannabis into the vapes, so the addiction grows from that point of view as well. It leads to children coming out of lessons agitated. If I did not have three coffees in the morning, my agitation would be quite high. If children are not getting nicotine, as well as going through all the other things they are going through, they really do present as confrontational to staff, which makes it difficult to deal with them in classrooms and engage them in their learning. At the same time, to repeat a point I made earlier, you have parents at home who are saying, “Well, it’s okay to do.” I absolutely concur about the way it is marketed and so on.

Patrick Roach:

To add to that, because those are important points: vape producers and manufacturers, and indeed those supplying vapes, are advertising freely in ways that make their products increasingly attractive to children and young people, with the way vapes are advertised and the marketing descriptors used for them. All the evidence we have, and certainly what our members tell us—our survey was of 4,000 teachers, so this is not anecdotal; it has an impact right across the system— suggests that the way those products are marketed and described deliberately seeks to entice young people to make use of them.

We believe that this is a strong Bill that very clearly sets out the societal expectations in this space, but as with any legislation, there is always scope for loopholes. If there are areas in the Bill where there is potential to further strengthen the legislation, I think the enticing way products are described, before an individual understands what they are getting themselves into, is something that needs to be considered and addressed.

From our point of view, it is about advertising, but it is also about access to these products. With the best will in the world, and no matter how they are advertised, if the products are easily available at the point of sale it makes things incredibly difficult. I remember that when I was bringing up my own children I worried about going to the supermarket with them, because they would be surrounded by candy and sweet products at the checkouts. You could not navigate your way through the checkouts. Thankfully, things have moved on: that has changed, and many parents are benefiting from those changes.

Young people are very much interacting with many of these products at the point of sale. They are in the shops that are in the vicinity of or on the route to and from school. They are being marketed in places that young people will frequent, whether that be a local café, the hairdressers or the barbers. They are in places where young people will be. They are also immediately available. The more we can do to stop the immediacy of marketing of these products and that easy availability, no matter how they are described, the better.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Q I have been hearing from parents and schools in my constituency that they are very concerned that children are going out at lunchtime and spending their lunch money on vapes, so they are not having anything nutritious during the day. Is there any evidence that indicates that there might be a pattern developing in that respect that will have an impact on children’s physical health and wellbeing?

Matthew Shanks:

Absolutely: children will find any which way they can to do what they want to do. At the moment, while this is not illegal, they will gather more people to follow the crowd and go out. In my experience, the majority of children want to do as they are instructed—probably about 85%, anecdotally, over the years—but they will follow the herd. At the moment, there is a greater herd growing because of all the things we have talked about, with the marketing and colour of vapes. I can absolutely see children going out at lunchtime and spending their money on that, instead of on food. There is peer pressure to do that as well—it is taking more people with them. As Patrick said, you can see these products in the barbers, in the shops and so on.

Patrick Roach:

To add to that, there are also bullying behaviours that manifest themselves. Whether a pupil is making the choice to go out at lunchtime to acquire vapes or is feeling coerced to do so, there is an issue either way. The availability of those products in the proximity of schools needs to be considered. That is a point that we would make.

Increasingly, schools have introduced systems to seek to ensure that children are being fed at lunch times, for example. We should not lose sight of that, but in some instances these products—particularly disposable vapes —are cheap as chips. I know that that is an issue of concern to the Government, and it is of concern to us and our members.

It is really important that we look at how we can ban the sale of disposable vapes entirely, because frankly no one knows what is in them, and they are incredibly cheap to acquire. Even if your parent can see what you had on Tuesday lunchtime because it comes up on their phone, how will they know if you have spent 10 minutes popping out to the local shop to acquire some vapes, particularly if they are of the disposable variety? More can be done not only to limit appeal, but to reduce the availability and accessibility of those products to young people. The more that can be done on that, the better.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

Four more people want to get in—actually, it has just gone up to five—and we have about 12 or 13 minutes left. It is unlikely that I will be able to get everybody in, but if Members put their questions as briefly as possible and witnesses respond as concisely as possible, I will try.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

Q There is nothing magical about your 18th birthday, but the legislation clearly talks about 18 being a cut-off age. Would it assist if that age were heightened—for instance, it is 20 in Japan and 21 in California—not least because of the impact of nicotine and cannabis, which have been mentioned? I have been hearing about synthetic drugs as well.

Matthew Shanks:

Yes. I absolutely agree.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

That is really helpful.

Patrick Roach:

I am not going to add to that, partly because I am here representing the interests of our members. The issue is about how we can control access to products, particularly illegal products, for school-age pupils. We therefore think that it is absolutely right that the Bill has identified the need to secure robust measures to protect the health and wellbeing of children and young people.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Ceidwadwyr, Harrow East

Q You talked about the escalation whereby young people, possibly as young as 10, start by vaping and then go on to other tobacco substances. What further measures would be required, in your view? What further support would teachers need to explain the harm that young people are doing to themselves as a result of vaping and smoking?

Matthew Shanks:

There are lots of campaigns that explain the harms of vaping and smoking. Sometimes people do not listen and do not engage with them. The only thing that I would say is that more people vape and smoke than take drugs, because drugs are illegal. If we are saying that tobacco is dangerous and harmful to people in our society, and our role is to protect them and educate them to see what is better, why is tobacco not illegal as well? Vaping started as an alternative to tobacco, but it is now catching on with young people. Is there a similar thing to be done with vapes? That is the view within schools on how we can help children to engage in what they should be doing at school, which is working at their education. There will be other things that have come along, but 15 years ago it was chewing gum everywhere—nicotine chewing gum was a big thing.

Patrick Roach:

The reality is that schools are doing an awful lot to inform, to educate and indeed to regulate the conduct of children and young people, as well as to engage with parents and carers, but schools by themselves cannot change society. They can have a tremendous influence over wider society, but by themselves they cannot change it.

Anything that we can continue to do to educate young people about the harms and dangers of smoking and vaping, we should continue to do. Notwithstanding this legislation, that is essential, because no legislation is going to eliminate illegality. We have to continue to strive to eradicate those behaviours wherever they manifest themselves.

What other practical measures could the Bill include? I have mentioned the way in which vape products are described. We think that something could be done there. On availability—this is potentially outwith the scope of the Bill, but it could happen through other legislation and regulation—we think that the prohibition of disposable vapes is an issue that needs to be addressed.

There is also the issue of enforcement measures. There is no point in passing legislation if it is not enforced in practice. We need to ensure that the enforcement measures are absolutely robust. The proximity to schools of any retailer selling vaping products also needs to be looked at.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Llafur, City of Durham

Q Following on from Bob’s question, you are in a position to educate young people about the harms of tobacco. Is there a point here about educating young people about the harms, about the unscrupulous measures that the tobacco industry takes and about the horrific products that it is making? Young people are often interested in climate change and wider issues. These industries and organisations are having an impact across the whole world. It could be something that young people are interested in—not just for their health, but for the wider impact on their local communities and across the world. If we had more funding for education, maybe with a payer levy, those types of measures could be looked at. Is there any opportunity for that type of education in schools?

Matthew Shanks:

That is happening at the moment within education, in curriculums and so on, but there is a lack of messaging around vaping, its harmful effects and its cheapness compared with tobacco. Even with the teaching of the harmful effects and the messaging compared with tobacco, there are still some families who smoke and you still see celebrities smoking. You are fighting that all the time.

It is good that we are educating young children about the harmful effects of things and the need to change, and we will continue to do that. We talk about big tobacco companies, big pharma, the global environment and so on, all within the curriculum.

Patrick Roach:

The reality is that we need more space in the curriculum to do all that and to make the connections between vaping, the impact on a child’s health, and how these companies are profiteering, often from the most vulnerable. The producers of vaping products, the degradation of the environment, the way products are manufactured—all of this is very rich territory.

I would like to see more by way of permission for teachers and school leaders to engage with their pupils about the real everyday concerns that young people have. There should be more scope and space in the curriculum to do that. That is not to argue against the teaching of maths, science and languages; it is about saying that we want to produce well-rounded individuals. For us, that is the purpose of education. This is an area where educators have an important role to play.

Matthew Shanks:

I would just add to that by encouraging you to visit your local schools and see what they are doing.

Photo of Angela Richardson Angela Richardson Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Q This morning, in evidence from previous witnesses, we heard a lot about how vaping is a great smoking cessation tool, but there is not enough evidence about the harms of vaping. You have described social harms; you probably see health harms as well. You have surveyed people, and you have come to give evidence this morning. Have you been asked, outside this, for evidence of the harm from vaping to the young people you look after? Do you believe that the evidence gathering on whether vaping is harmful is going at a fast enough pace?

Matthew Shanks:

No, prior to now. This is very welcome, which is why we have both given our time because this is important. There was something in the papers this morning about evidence of harms of vaping for children, but it is not the headline; it is seven or eight pages in, so people will not read it.

I absolutely think that there should be more about the harm of vaping or just the unknown. You do not know necessarily what the dangers are, so therefore why would you engage in it? We talk a lot when we are doing drug prevention with children about—apologies if this offends—where the drugs come from, what the base of them is and what they contain. In the same way, you do not know what is in a disposable vape or another type of vape, so why would you put that in your body? Those are the lessons we are talking about, so we would certainly welcome more evidence to support that.

Patrick Roach:

We know, from the feedback we have had from teachers as part of the research we have done, which includes both quantitative and qualitative feedback, that children are getting ill as a result of using vaping products. That is the daily reality that school leaders and teachers have to deal with.

The more that we can systematically collect and collate that data and evidence—whether that is a child who ended up being rushed into hospital because they became very ill on the school premises or, indeed, a near miss within the school—the better we will be. But the reality is, on an everyday basis, that teachers are experiencing this and having to deal with these issues and to intervene on and support pupils who are impacted physiologically by other harms of vaping products.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

A very brief final question from Dr Caroline Johnson. We have to finish at 10 past 11, so I ask the witnesses to bear that in mind.

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

Q I want to ask about flavourings because we have heard that flavourings may encourage some adults to switch. We know that where adults stop smoking using vapes, flavourings might prolong their addiction to vapes, and we know that flavourings entice children to vape. Some people say that we need to keep the flavours for the adults; some people say no flavours because they entice children. To govern is to choose, so which do you think is the most important—supporting adults to stop smoking or protecting children from starting vaping?

Matthew Shanks:

A simple question to finish with—thank you! I think you can have both, because I would. If you look at the way cigarettes are marketed—behind a shelf with the pictures of the damage they cause—that is different from the way vapes are marketed, with their colourful packaging and excellent flavours that appeal to children. If you change the way they are marketed, you could have both, because you could still help adults with the flavourings but not make them appealing to children.

Patrick Roach:

A simple answer: protect children from harm.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Llafur, Knowsley

I thank the witnesses for giving us a very particular perspective that we have not previously heard about on how all this impacts on teaching and the education sector in general. We are grateful for that, and I am sure the Committee found it helpful.