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Cosmetics (Consumer Protection)

Volume 955: debated on Thursday 3 August 1978

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4.29 p.m.

It is now 12 years since I first introduced a Private Member's Bill to provide for ingredient labelling of toilet preparations, because I was concerned about the many cases of allergies, rashes and similar conditions which were sent to me by sufferers who complained that they had been unable to discover the particular substance which had apparently caused the trouble. From this correspondence I became aware just how much consumers are concerned about better protection, and more detailed information in regard to the toiletries which they use.

I approach the subject as a layman, and I welcome the attempt of the EEC directive on cosmetics to meet this need and ensure greater safety in the use of cosmetics. However, because I believe that consumers have a right to know the contents of toilet preparations, I am disappointed that the directive does not make this a requirement for cosmetic labelling.

The United States finds it perfectly practicable to require the complete formula qualitative, in descending order of concentration, to be printed on the carton or container of all cosmetics. I have here three such cartons from the United States. The first is for an eye shadow stick, which has listed 16 ingredients. The second is for a lip pencil which has listed on it 21 ingredients, and the third is for an eye pencil containing 22 ingredients. All the ingredients are extremely clear and easy to read and understand. Obviously, this must greatly assist consumers in making a choice. It also assists their doctors in identifying chemicals which have caused health problems.

I hope that the Minister will say whether there are any proposals, either as an addition to the directive or as a separate instrument to be introduced later, for this kind of ingredient labelling in this country. Such a step is long overdue.

I regret that the directive takes the negative form of concentrating on some 360 substances which must not be used and on others where special precautions must be taken, rather than producing lists of approved ingredients which have been tested for quality and safety.

In spite of this, I believe that the directive is a big step forward into an area where hitherto there has been an absence of specific legislative action. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell me when he expects these regulations to be introduced. We are well beyond the originally prescribed date of 29th January 1978.

I appreciate that the delay may be due to consultations with expert advisers about some of the more difficult aspects of the directive. It is because I hope that the Minister intends to go beyond the directive in some important respects that I have asked for this debate today. Once the regulations are made it will be difficult to have a real debate because they are then a fait accompli and, in any case, I may not be in Parliament at that time.

I turn to the subject of hair dyes. I wonder whether the Minister has any idea how worried consumers are about the steady spate of press reports indicating that some hair dyes may be carcinogenic in their effects. Consumers are scared because they have no idea what the vague term "permanent hair dyes" means. Therefore, they worry about a whole range of coloured setting lotions, colour rinses and dyes of one kind or another. They have no idea of the name of the manufacturer or the brand names of any colours which may be suspect.

If ever consumers had a right to know, it is in this case. They should not have to worry about this without some hard information and firmer protection. At the same time the Minister knows that the experts with whom he confers are concerned that the new knowledge obtained by research—some since the original directive was made two years ago—should lead to a tightening up of the directive's proposals.

I refer particularly to the hair colouring agents grouped in the directive under the name of phenylene diamine and salts, and also to the lead-acetate based hair treatment products. The one which is called 2–4 diamino-toluene has been the basis of Japanese work dating back to 1955, and it is accepted that there is good evidence for its carcinogenicity. It has been reported removed from many hair-dye products. In the light of its use, will it be completely proscribed under the British version of the regulations, or what will the position be?

Another product I wish to mention is 2·4=diamino-anisole. Preliminary evaluation of American data on this indicates again carcinogenicity. It is being recommended that its exposure in the United States should be minimised, and that warnings should be mandatory on hair-dye labels and in hairdressing salons. What will be the position in this country in regard to this chemical under the new regulations?

It would not be appropriate today to go into the expert criticisms which have been made in detail, apart from those which I have mentioned, but it is accepted that although the whole subject is one on which it is difficult to legislate, there is little or no scientific sense in the way the constituents are grouped in the directive, or in the maximum levels set.

Perhaps I can put the problem as I see it in this way. A correspondent wrote to me:
"If only something could be done to alleviate our anxieties, and if only we could be given the necessary advice with regard to the dangers inherent in the use of hair dyes"—
my correspondent adds somewhat dramatically—
"you would be a benefactor to mankind if you would concern yourself in this matter and would earn our deepest gratitude."
Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me whether that lady or any other person, male or female, who wished to colour her hair—and these dyes are widely used—can be assured that he, the Minister, has made the necessary amendments to the directive in the light of expert criticisms of it to prevent any suspect dyes from being used in hairdressers or on sale over the counter? If he has not been able to do this, will he explain why not? Has he strengthened the warnings required for use of these chemicals so that they are much more explicit than those originally proposed? Has the Minister ensured that the names of suspect chemicals that are still permitted are clearly shown on the containers so that this lady and others who wish to avoid them can exercise their own judgment or obtain medical advice about their use?

A worrying suggestion has been made to me which I hope the Minister will allay. Will he say whether any dyes or other chemicals are permitted by the directive which would formerly have been prohibited here? If that is the case, will he say what those products are? I hope that this is not the case, but perhaps the Minister will confirm the situation.

Furthermore, in view of the time necessarily involved in any amending directive and regulations, is there any kind of fail-safe mechanism by which, if a substance in use is discovered to be dangerous to health in the light of new research, it can be withdrawn from sale with something like the speed at which tins of salmon have been withdrawn from shop shelves in the last few days? Has my hon. Friend yet taken a decision whether chloroform is still to be used in toothpaste, because, as he knows, there is considerable medical concern about this mildly carcinogenic substance being used in toothpaste since it may be ingested, particularly by children?

With regard to another substance, surma, the lead-based, Asian-made eye cosmetic often used by Asians to brighten their children's eyes, with the subsequent danger of causing brain damage or poisoning to the children, I understand from the Minister that the new regulations will have the effect of prohibiting its sale and that of any other eye cosmetics containing lead and its compounds.

Because of the traditional use of this cosmetic and the ignoring of previous warnings about it and possible language difficulties, is my hon. Friend taking any special steps for the enforcement of the regulation to ensure that the product is not actually used once it has been banned?

On enforcement generally, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, of which I have the honour to be a vice-president, believes that weights and measures authorities should be responsible for enforcing the new cosmetic regulations, rather than this work being done by the Pharmaceutical Society, which is making representations that its inspectors should have the responsibility.

Since weights and measures authorities employ about 1,500 officers who can take on this work as part of their routine visits to all sorts of shops, including drugstores, supermarkets, chain and department stores and pharmacists, from which cosmetics may be sold, I share the AMA's hope that total enforcement will be given to these authorities. In addition, many weights and measures authorities have consumer advice centres which are ideally positioned for giving help and information to consumers about the safety of toilet preparations, which is my main concern in initiating this debate.

I have asked the Minister a number of questions which I hope he can answer. My main concern is that when we make the regulations, they should take us a step forward towards greater safety for consumers, giving them more information and generally making toiletries in this country much safer.

4.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Prices and Consumer Protection
(Mr. John Fraser)

I shall try to answer as many questions as I can. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for raising this subject. She has taken a close interest in the matter for many years and tabled a number of Questions during the preparation of the cosmetic safety regulations and the EEC directive on which they are based.

In January, my hon. Friend asked the Secretary of State whether, in view of the importance of the draft regulations, it would be possible to arrange for them to be debated in the House. As the regulations are to be made largely under the Consumer Protection Act 1961 and are therefore subject to the negative resolution procedure, I explained that there would be no discussion—unless on a motion seeking their annulment. I am glad, however, that I can say something about them on this terminal Adjournment debate.

The regulations, which will be laid soon—I cannot give an exact date—are a valuable addition to our consumer protection armoury. Moreover, this is an area where harmonisation of regulations throughout the Community on the basis of an article 100 directive is especially to be welcomed, so as to facilitate trade as well as improve protection.

This is a vital matter for our manufacturers of cosmetic products, who last year sold goods worth £65 million to the rest of the Community. The technical ingenuity and expertise of the cosmetic chemists, the careful market research, the skilled manufacturing processes and the enthusiasm of the sales team will be of little avail if the entry of our goods into foreign markets is hindered by unharmonised safety requirements.

It is for that reason that the main trade associations for the cosmetics industry have been in almost continual consultation with my Department. In addition, through their European organisation, they were involved in the initial discussions in Brussels on the cosmetics directive. They have continued to make a vigorous contribution to the drafting of our regulations.

Apart from the industry itself, my Department has consulted extensively during the preparation of the regulations. About 270 organisations were sent copies of the first draft last year. These included a number of medical bodies—the Medical Research Council, the department of cancer research at Birmingham University, the Institute of Child Care, the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention and the British Medical Association. In addition, my officials have been in close contact with the Laboratory of the Government Chemist and toxicological advisers in the Department of Health and Social Security. The comments of these experts have been carefully considered, and wherever the directive has given scope for their views to be reflected in the regulations that has been done.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that there has also been consultation with the local authority associations, in which she expressed her interest. Their advice is especially valuable as it will be their task—I can give this assurance—to enforce these and other safety regulations. Finally, we have taken the views of consumer organisations.

Our discussions have meant that we have not been able to complete the drafting of the regulations as soon as I should have liked. The directive itself imposed an obligation to implement it by national legislation by the end of January this year. I stress that the delay has been used only to good effect, in that the draft has been most carefully revised and improved. It was better to get it right than to keep exactly to the deadline of January 1978.

I have now approved the making of the Cosmetic Products Regulations 1978, and they will be laid before Parliament very shortly. The requirements imposed by the regulations will enter into force at various times, each at the earliest practicable date.

My hon. Friend has expressed her concern about a number of products, including certain hair dye preparations. She expressed concern about the possibility of cancer-forming agents in the dyes. Our medical advisers are still examining research work done in the United King- dom and the United States, which is said to indicate that certain hair dyes are carcinogenic. I shall be ready to take action when I receive their considered advice. However, it would be unwise to try to anticipate it.

I do not underestimate the importance of examining these matters carefully, but no evaluation has come to me so far that would justify going beyond the scope of the regulations.

My hon. Friend has mentioned a number of substances and she referred to labelling. She gave an example of 23 items in a certain cosmetic. If she finds it difficult to pronounce the name of the substance and I find it difficult to understand what the substances do, bearing in mind the difficulty that is experienced by two Members of Parliament, I do not understand how consumers will be given very much assistance by having 23 substances listed so that they may choose between one cosmetic and another. There comes a stage when the labelling of contents adds nothing to the consumer's information. Indeed, such labelling can be positively misleading.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of dyes and substances, and I have looked quickly through the draft regulation. The hair dyes are listed by number and the numbers refer in turn to a list of hair dyes approved by the trade associations. I cannot answer my hon. Friend's question. If I do not answer some of her questions in the debate, I shall write to her.

My hon. Friend is concerned about the carcinogenic effects of hair dyes. That is an issue which has been carefully considered and the research has been evaluated.

My argument is that if one ingredient become suspect, or if a consumer has an allergy to an ingredient, the consumer can immediately pick it out if there is the listing of ingredients. That was the position with hexachloroethane. Everybody now knows that name. When people see it on a product, they understand what is meant. It is not necessary to know how to pronounce an ingredient to know whether it is dangerous.

I know about hexachloroethane. I learnt about that during the first week I was a Minister. I learnt it through an intervention of my hon. Friend.

There is the ability within the regulations, if there is a suspect substance, to advance beyond the scope of the regulations and to ban or to make provision for that substance.

My hon. Friend mentioned chloroform in toothpaste. The possible health risk is under consideration by an expert advisory committee of the Department of Health and Social Security. I shall consider what action, if any, needs to be taken when its advice is received. There is no need to delay the making of the regulations on that account. Cosmetics are not the prerogative of women. I cannot imagine that some of our early prizefighters used perfume, but nowadays the sweet scent of victory is something that one has to splash over oneself.

However, cosmetics can be harmful and, as my hon. Friend said, they can be lethal. There is a gap in our safety legislation which the regulations will fill. I hope that this will give some reassurance. My hon. Friend said that an item might be missed from regulations or that a product might become suspect in the future. I am sure that she will be reassured by what I am about to tell her.

The regulations will impose a novel comprehensive and important duty upon manufacturers, importers and "own brand" retailers—namely, a duty not to sell, or possess for sale, a cosmetic product liable to damage human health under normal conditions of use. Whatever the details of the regulations, there will be an overriding duty of care coupled with a criminal sanction. The details of the regulations will stipulate that cosmetic products may not be formulated with any of more than 350 listed substances. A list of permitted colouring is also provided.

Provision is also made for the marking of containers or packaging with information as to the identity of the manufacturer or seller of the product and batch marking, which will facilitate the tracing of any non-complying products. There will be the same facility to trace products as we have seen in the recent tinned salmon case. Furthermore, any particular precautions to be observed in the use of the product must also be explained to the consumer.

The directive enables member States to prohibit provisionally the marketing of any product which is considered to be a hazard to health, even though it complies with the existing requirements of the directive as regards composition, labelling, and so forth. If medical advice indicated that any particular substance, although permitted, was hazardous, we should take the appropriate action—if necessary by means of new regulations under the Consumer Safety Act 1978.

Among the products covered by the regulations are soaps, creams, lotions and oils for the skin, make-up products, perfumes and toilet waters, bath salts, foams, depilatories, deodorants and anti-perspirants, hair care products, shaving creams and lotions, toothpastes and lipsticks and—appropriately, since we are going on vacation—sunbathing products.

Just a few months ago there was considerable publicity concerning the use among Asian families of eye cosmetics which contain lead sulphide called surma. Such products probably present little risk to health when used as intended, but there is an obvious danger of ingestion, particularly by children. The cosmetics regulations will prohibit the use of lead and its compounds—with certain exceptions for small concentrations of lead acetate—and this will mean that the sale of these products will be illegal.

The regulations will also provide that cosmetic products containing certain known allergens must be labelled with the name of the substance concerned. Consumers who are sensitive to these substances will therefore be able to avoid purchasing unsuitable goods. I hope that that goes some way to meet my hon. Friend's concern about these substances which consumers might wish to discriminate against because they are allergic to them.

The introduction of these safety regulations does not mark the end of our work on cosmetic products. The European Commission is continuing to hold discussions with member States, consumer organisations and the cosmetics industry with a view to the production of lists of substances which are safe for use in cosmetics. These will be "positive" lists which will in due course be substituted for the existing "negative" lists. This has been a massive task, involving the study by toxicologists of data concerning the use of many hundreds of substances, many of them exceedingly complex chemicals. When the directive is amended to take account of this work, we shall be under an obligation to amend our own regulations in similar fashion, and this we shall do following consultations with all interested parties.

My hon. Friend asked not only about the banning of surma and its illegality but about steps taken to inform people about the danger of using it. I have done a television programme on the subject, although I do not say that that is enough. Officials in my Department have sent warnings to all consumer protection enforcement authorities, and we have had the co-operation of community relations organisations and immigrant language newsapers in getting the message across. We have done whatever we have been able to do to make the cosmetic illegal and to warn people of the dangers of using it and also against bringing it in, perhaps as a result of a holiday on the Indian sub-continent.

Finally, the cosmetics regulations are just one example of a series of consumer safety regulations being made this year. Regulations relating to the labelling and packaging of hazardous substances and to the manufacture of babies' dummies have already been made. I hope shortly to make a further set of regulations on the safe construction of prams and pushchairs. Work is also in hand on regulations to implement a Euratom directive under which the use of ionising radiation products will require prior authorisation.

This all adds up to a considerable speeding up of measures under consumer safety legislation. From the introduction of the Consumer Protection Act in 1961 until the end of last year, 14 sets of regulations had been made. The making this year of a further four sets indicates the importance which I attach to protecting British people from hazardous products which still find their way on to the market.

This is not to suggest that in general British manufacturers ignore the wellbeing of their consumers. They do not. Many companies carry out extensive testing programmes before introducing new products. Moreover, it is our policy to secure voluntary co-operation in resisting shoddy, dangerous workmanship, and in the overwhelming majority of cases such co-operation is freely and willingly given. But safety regulations arc essential to set the standards by which responsible manufacturers and traders can operate and to enforce reasonable practice in the instances where carelessness or the desire for quick profits may lead to the marketing of dangerous goods.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising these matters and I wish her and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a happy vacation—and that is not just cosmetic.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Five o'clock till Tuesday 24th October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 1st August.