Examination of Witness

Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:08 pm ar 30 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Laura Young gave evidence.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Ceidwadwyr, South West Devon 3:38, 30 Ebrill 2024

Colleagues, we have at least 10 minutes left—perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. We are now, by the science and wonder of technology, zooming up to Dundee, I think. We welcome Laura Young from the Centre for Water Law, Policy and Science at the University of Dundee, via Zoom. I am going to ask you to introduce yourself in a moment, Laura, and I will just say that when Division bells start ringing in about 10 or 15 minutes, we will all be dashing off. It will be nothing you have done wrong or something you have said that we don’t like; it is nothing at all like that. Laura, over to you, please.

Laura Young:

Well, I am Scottish, so I will try to speak as fast as we are known for. Hello, I am Laura. I am a PhD researcher in environmental science and a campaigner, and I have worked extensively, looking specifically at disposable vapes but also looking at vaping in general over the past 18 months. I very much welcome this Bill and support a lot of what has been said, but I also think there is room for taking more action and I am happy to be giving evidence today.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Ceidwadwyr, South West Devon

Thank you very much. You will hear first from your own Member of Parliament, Kirsten Oswald, who will ask the first question.

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

Q I have kept you as a constituent, Laura, despite your being away studying. I know that you will have handled conversations probably significantly better than the rest of us on the prevalence of vapes in all our communities, particularly in areas near schools and the coast, where they can lead to plastic pollution. Can you tell us what change you have seen over the last couple of years in terms of the numbers and explain why that is problematic to the environment ?

Laura Young:

The environmental impact cannot be overstated. Vapes are a huge issue, especially for waste, and we have seen the numbers growing and growing. Material Focus, an environmental electronics charity, did some research specifically looking at disposable vapes in 2022 and 2023 and the number quadrupled. In 2023 we were looking at about 5 million a week. Jam-packed inside each and every vape are lots of precious materials, which of course are going to waste after one single use. We know they are not being recycled, so those materials are just being wasted. We are not getting them back.

We also know that vapes pose a huge risk to our waste workers. They have lithium batteries inside them and we have seen some devastating fires already because of them. That represents what we have been hearing today. Walking down any high street you will see the prevalence of these being sold in almost every type of shop everywhere. We see them sold everywhere, wasted everywhere, and having a huge impact on the environment and the health of people and children who get their hands on them.

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

Q Would you like to say a little more around how tobacco and vaping products impact the environment? There was an opportunity for the Government to do a lot more on cigarette butts. Do you want to say anything about that?

Laura Young:

Of course, one of the obvious things is litter. Every single street has cigarette butts on it and that is very harmful. We do not want any litter, if possible. Disposable vapes have become an increasing site of litter as well. They are not just litter; they are electronic devices and are very damaging with lots of chemicals inside them. We have even had garage owners talking about people popping tyres with these shards of metal as they get squashed and run over, so they are very damaging.

All the way through the process of particularly vapes we see a lot of material resource—lithium, copper and cobalt, things that have to be mined around the world—put together for these devices to be used just once before they run out and are thrown away. The disposability speaks to a lot of the other problems. These are made as disposable. They are throwaway and cheap, and that leads to the fact that so many young people buy them because they are cheap, accessible and throwaway. Something that is absolutely an environmental issue with waste and litter is also a big problem in terms of accessibility for young people.

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

Q What impact do you think the Bill will have on improving the environmental outcomes?

Laura Young:

I think the regulations and how those are designed will be crucial. I know there will be follow-up legislation mopping up other parts of the issues, with disposable vapes hopefully being banned, but it is important that we look at the design. How we get the most circular economy version of vapes is crucial: limiting as much as possible single-use plastic, looking at how we can make them modular, making sure we do not just shove a charging port at the bottom and hope for the best, but actually looking at how they can be circular by design.

On design, it is also important that we are beginning to see vapes that are legal—there are the illegal ones, which are to one side—that I believe are getting around existing legislation in terms of capacity. You now see ones that have different cartridges, so it is almost like the pens that you had where you could switch between the inks. You can now do that with vapes that are being sold legally. They are getting over the limits because they are saying, “This isn’t one big cartridge. This is four small ones.” We are already seeing the industry innovating in a negative way to get around the legislation, so we need to make sure that that does not happen when we bring in environmental topics as well as all the other ones for public health.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Ceidwadwyr, Copeland

Q You have expertly explained the concerns around plastic pollution from vapes, but what do we know so far about the impacts on nature and biodiversity from cigarette butts? Also, are you aware of any concerns about the air pollution risks on biodiversity from cigarettes?

Laura Young:

This may be something that has gone under the radar: the No. 1 item littered is cigarette butts, particularly when you look by number. They have a huge environmental impact, particularly because plastic is inside the filters, and the filter is the butt that is let behind. Although there has been a lot of campaigning around the environmental impact of vapes, there have been amazing efforts to raise awareness of the environmental issues around tobacco by organisations like ASH Scotland and the Marine Conservation Society, one of which I know has already given evidence.

Globally, we also need to look at this as a huge industry. Of course, kind of like any other industry, they need to be looking at their footprint and their sustainability measures. We know of course that air pollution is absolutely key to the conversation, and that has an impact as well on wildlife and biodiversity. Neither tobacco or nicotine products, such as vaping, are good for the environment; they are very harmful to the environment. We are just beginning to see those harms with disposable vapes in particular, but we know that cigarette butts have had a longstanding impact on the environment. They are also just a nightmare to collect. They are so small and so problematic. On beaches, you will see them as much as you see sand. We definitely need a lot more action across both those sectors.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q The concerns about the environment are important, but the other issue about banning the use is that it sends out a message that vapes may not be safe. I know a lot of vaping companies are trying their best to see how vapes can be disposed of safely. They have these new vapes where they are disposable, but they are not single use. Do you think there could be any alternative to a ban? Do you think a ban might deter people from giving up smoking because they think that because vapes are banned, they are not good for you? It is a complicated discussion to have about what should be done. Do you want to comment on some of the things I have said?

Laura Young:

Absolutely. The first thing to remember is that vaping is not good for you. It is slightly better than smoking, but let us definitely not push the message that it is good for you.

On disposables, that is something I got to see first hand just last week. Only one place in Scotland has the capacity to recycle disposable vapes or any vapes at all. From watching that process, it takes an individual staff member with personal protective equipment under a ventilation hood—if you remember chemistry from when you were at school—pulling them apart manually with pliers. They separate the parts of the vape out and put lots of it to the side because it cannot be recycled, and they take away things like the battery, covering it in this special type of tape to ensure that it does not combust and burn, because of course lithium is very explosive. The whole process of recycling one vape takes over a minute for one member of staff. It is a huge cost, and it is not an economically viable piece of WEEE—waste electronical and electronic equipment—to recycle.

We know that only a tiny number of vapes are actually being recycled. If all five million a week that are currently being thrown away in the UK were sent to recycling centres, it would be a huge cost to local authorities, which often are the ones collecting them, and it would take a lot of infrastructure and people hours to process them.

I will just say that nobody wants to ban things—I certainly do not want to ban things. Nobody started by saying, “Here, these seem like a bit of an issue. Should we ban them?” We actually went through the process of asking all the questions that you and many others have asked. What are the solutions? What can we do? How can we raise awareness?

Unfortunately, with an item that is just so damaging and dangerous and is the complete opposite of a circular economy, which is what we are trying to achieve, they just cannot exist. Disposable electronic devices should not exist, and that is really important. It is our job—the rest of us—to ensure that the public health messaging comes across clearly, which is, “One of the main reasons we are banning these is the environmental impact and youth access, but we still want to help adult smokers quit smoking and move to really just breathing fresh air. We want to move them completely away from tobacco and nicotine products.”

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Opposition Whip (Commons)

I would just like to say that vaping is 95% safer than smoking.

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

Q I proposed a ten-minute rule Bill to ban disposable vapes last February, so I am delighted to see that the Government have brought in an statutory instrument to do exactly that. I am disappointed, but not surprised, to hear you say that industry is doing its best to circumnavigate the regulations before they are even brought in.

I have two questions. First, how do we ensure that the regulations are flexible enough for us to be able to stay ahead of such measures? Secondly, could you say a bit about the effect on wildlife? My hon. Friend Dr Hudson has talked about puppies picking these things up in their mouths and the danger they can pose if the puppies bite into them. Could you talk a bit more about the danger that they pose to wildlife when they are thrown away?

Laura Young:

Of course. On the regulations, I think that we have to think creatively and innovatively about some of the workarounds that might be being used. We are already seeing charging ports just being popped on the bottom. Of course, that might mean that the battery can be recharged a few extra times, but if it cannot be refilled with the solution, it is still, in practice, a single-use item and will have to be thrown away eventually.

The issue is about ensuring that we look at the builds and make sure that they are modular and that the circular-economy principles that we want to achieve are set in stone. I think that that means working as best as possible with the retailers and the manufacturers—although that will be really difficult—and looking to other initiatives, whether that is single-use plastics bans or treaties on plastic, one of which has just come to an end globally, to see what we can do.

I will tell you a story about the wildlife. A wildlife photographer, a birdwatcher, was taking some images of a marine bird doing a very normal activity, which was picking up a shellfish—what looked like a razorfish—and dropping it from a height to smash it open to get some delicious dinner. But after this young gull had failed multiple times, this photographer realised that, unfortunately, what it was actually picking up and dropping was a disposable vape. We are seeing not only domestic animals, such as cats and dogs and things that we love as pets, getting hold of disposable vapes and potentially breaking them open, but actual wildlife being impacted—picking them up, thinking they are shells on the beach, and trying to eat what is inside them.

That is just from the very short time that we have been paying attention and looking out for this, and from keen birdwatchers capturing it, so we know that there will be extensive wildlife impacts. We are only now scrambling around to try to find more evidence, but we know that it is already happening, and that that is just one example. The photographs are on Twitter, if anyone did want to go and find them. It is sad, but it is definitely the reality of what we are seeing.

Photo of Mary Foy Mary Foy Llafur, City of Durham

Q Just a very quick question: would you agree that this is symptomatic of the throwaway society that we live in? We have disposable vapes, plastic toys with happy meals and toasters—all small appliances that do not last long enough. They are all thrown away and are damaging the environment. I know that, in Durham, all sorts of electronic devices are thrown in the river, and that is interfering with wildlife.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Ceidwadwyr, South West Devon

It is a fair question; it is not within scope of the Bill, but it is a fair question.

Laura Young:

Yes, absolutely. Just last week, I and other leading scientists from across the UK published a piece in Science, the science magazine: a letter about disposable technology, using vapes as an example—the first in a wave of disposable, cheap tech that is having an impact—and about the need for a global effort to tackle this. That is absolutely a hot topic right now; if we do not get a grapple on it now and use vapes as an example of how to tackle it, we will just continue to see disposable electronics, which are all jam-packed full of things that we need for other devices for a green economy.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Ceidwadwyr, South West Devon

Laura, thank you so much for your evidence this afternoon. There are no more questions—we are about to zoom off and vote right now—but you have brought the subject to life with your very colourful descriptions. Thank you so much for that.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Assistant Whip

We apologise to the remaining witnesses, who we will try to squeeze in tomorrow.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Aaron Bell.)

Adjourned till Wednesday 1 May at twenty-five past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

TVB 01 J.J. Fox (St James’s) Limited

TVB 02 Barkers of Harrogate

TVB 03 C.Gars Ltd & Turmeaus Tobacconist

TVB 04 Havana House

TVB 05 Davidoff of London

TVB 06 Association of Convenience Stores (ACS)

TVB 07 Tor Imports Ltd

TVB 08 The Imported Tobacco Products Advisory Council (ITPAC)

TVB 09 Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association (TMA)

TVB 10 Scandinavian Tobacco Group A/S

TVB 11 Local Government Association (LGA)

TVB 12 European Cigar Manufacturers Association (ECMA)

TVB 13 Cigars Unlimited

TVB 14 Gawith Hoggarth & Co. Ltd

TVB 15 Paul Cheema

TVB 16 Sautter Cigars


TVB 18 Dr Jasmine Khouja, Senior Research Associate in Smoking Studies, University of Bristol