Clause 7 - Sale of vaping products to under 18s

Part of Tobacco and Vapes Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 9 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health) 12:30, 9 Mai 2024

First, I want to make some general points about these first vaping-related clauses of the Bill. We agree fundamentally with the Government in their efforts to find a balance by phasing out tobacco use and cracking down on youth vaping while being careful not to undermine the proven success of vaping as a stop-smoking aid. There is no doubt, however, that the rise in youth vaping is a serious concern.

My main question about the Government’s response is “What took them so long?” Labour proposed measures more than two years ago to stop vapes being branded and marketed to appeal to children, but that was blocked by the Government. I am glad that the Government have listened to us. I hope that they will continue to do so as we debate the Bill; I firmly believe that some of its provisions can still be strengthened.

I am pleased by the inclusion of clause 7. Coupled with clause 34, which defines a vaping product in a way that includes non-nicotine vapes, it will tackle a substantial loophole that we have been calling on the Government to close for a long time. Youth vaping is a serious and growing issue. In 2021, Labour voted for an amendment to the Health and Care Bill to crack down on the marketing of vapes to children. Since then, according to the most recent survey by Action on Smoking and Health, 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. In clause 7, a couple of issues therefore intertwine.

I think most people would be surprised to learn that it is legal to sell non-nicotine vapes to children, which could so obviously be designed as a gateway to addiction to the real thing, as the Minister mentioned. It is doubly concerning when we think about the illicit vapes that end up on British shelves. Testing by Inter Scientific, from which we heard last week, has found that a considerable percentage of seized vaping products that it tested contained nicotine, even when they were marketed as 0%.

That is highly concerning. It means that for the past several years, we may have seen a spate of accidental addictions among children. According to survey data from ASH, 9.5% of vapers aged 11 to 17 exclusively puff on so-called 0% nicotine vapes. Analysis of that and of data from the Office for National Statistics suggests that at least 40,000 child vapers could have been exposed to nicotine-containing vapes without their consent, becoming accidentally addicted by illegal products masquerading as nicotine-free that, under existing regulations, they are allowed to buy. That is an important testament to why not just regulation, but effective enforcement— especially over the illicit market—is vital to the success of the Bill.

The two-tier system of regulation for nicotine and non-nicotine vapes is not robust. The exclusion of non-nicotine vapes from the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 is important for a few reasons. Primarily, it is confusing and more difficult to enforce the rules on the ground if it is not clear which products contain nicotine and which do not. As 0% nicotine vapes are out of the scope of the current regulations, they do not need to be notified through the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency process, on which trading standards officers often rely to identify illicit products. I raised that point with the Minister in a debate in January and am keen to seek clarity. Does the Minister think that all producers should have to notify vape products, regardless of nicotine content, to the MHRA?

I note that clause 71 provides the power to extend the notification process to non-nicotine vapes, but the Government have not, to my knowledge, explicitly expressed a view on the matter. Will the Minister do so now? In theory, including non-nicotine vapes in the notification process should allow for a complete database of products. Currently, it is difficult to identify which products are legal or illegal, which really undermines enforcement action.

As we heard in evidence, the impact of vaping products on the developing bodies of children has the potential to be very harmful. It is vital that we take every step to make sure that our systems of regulation and enforcement are as robust as possible to stop a new generation of products hooking our children on nicotine and harming their long-term health. We absolutely support the clause, and I am keen to hear the Government’s view on the issues that I have raised.

I have no substantial comments to make about clause 8. It is a common-sense reapplication of the principles of clause 2, which we have debated and which I support.

Clause 9 will finally address a loophole that I regret to say the Opposition raised in an amendment to the Health and Care Bill in 2021; I am glad that it is now receiving the Government’s attention. Our 2021 amendment would have prohibited the free distribution or sale of any consumer nicotine product to anyone under 18, while allowing the sale or distribution of nicotine replacement therapy licensed for use by under-18s. The then Minister rejected the amendment. To quote my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham:

“There was no evidence of a serious problem, but the Minister sympathised with the argument for preventive action.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2021; Vol. 704, c. 56.]

Two and a half years later, it is clear what a widespread issue this has become. It goes without saying that Opposition support clause 9, which will close the loophole, as well as clause 44, which will introduce powers for the Scottish Government to extend the existing powers to regulate the free distribution of vapes and other nicotine products such as pouches, as mentioned by the Minister. Likewise, clause 51 will mean that age of sale restrictions can be extended to non-nicotine vaping products.

Finally, clause 53 relates to the free distribution of vapes and nicotine products in Northern Ireland, whether or not they contain nicotine. As I have discussed, I am very concerned that that has presented a loophole that has undermined enforcement, so I support a consistent approach across the United Kingdom. May I ask the Minister to set out what the words “in the course of business” will mean in practice when it comes to the free distribution of harmful products, given that we would expect any person caught out by the provision to argue that there is no “business” in giving away something for free? Of course, we know that that is not true in the case of addictive products, but I will be grateful if the Minister can reassure me that the clause will do in practice what it needs to do. Can she also please reassure me that it will not prohibit under-18s from accessing nicotine replacement therapies?

I reiterate that the Opposition support these clauses, but I am very interested in the Minister’s views on how the Bill should affect the notification process for vapes.