Skip to main content

Vaping: Under-18s

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered vaping among under-18s.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and it is great to welcome many colleagues from across the House to this important debate. I completely recognise that vaping has a vital role to play in supporting adults to give up tobacco smoking. However, vaping is a public good only if it is helping people to end addictions that they already have, not creating new ones, especially in our vulnerable young folk.

It is not an exaggeration to say that we are seeing an epidemic among our young people, which can be attributed to an increasingly popular and powerful market for disposable vapes. Action on Smoking and Health—ASH —said in its survey of 11 to 17-year-olds in Great Britain that 15.8% of 11 to 17-year-olds had tried vaping in 2022, up from 11.2% in 2021. It also said that in 2022, 7% of 11 to 17-year-olds were current users of vapes, up from 3.3% in 2021.

It is currently illegal for young people under 18 to purchase vapes. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have a problem implementing the existing regulations, rather than anything else?

I completely agree, and I want to stress that key point: it is illegal to sell vapes to under-18s. I will be asking the Minister about that. I know that the Government are moving on it, and we need to address it going forward.

Similarly, an NHS survey in 2021 said that 9% of 11 to 15-year-olds, and 18% of 15-year-olds, had used vapes. Those are alarming statistics. ASH England also noted that the most frequently used e-cigarettes among young people are disposable vapes, with an astonishing increase from 7.7% in 2021 to 52% in 2022. Although this is not the main focus of my speech, I will point out that, quite aside from the health concerns associated with such a marked rise in the sale and consumption of disposable vapes, they are a major environmental concern, with over 1 million of them thrown away every week. It is estimated that the lithium used in those batteries equates to about 10 tonnes of lithium per year, which is equivalent to the lithium used in approximately 1,200 electric vehicle batteries.

My hon. Friend will be aware of my ten-minute rule Bill to ban disposable vapes for exactly the reasons he has described: the effects on children’s health particularly, and on the environment. Does he agree that the Government should support the Bill?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I thank her for intervening and I welcome her medical expertise in this debate.

I have touched on some of the environmental concerns, and there are also concerns about fires related to disposable vapes. However, at the heart of my speech is the impact that such a frightening level of vape use is having on our young people, even as young as primary age. I urge our policymakers not to underestimate it. There are increasing reports suggesting that the use of vapes has negative effects on heart and lung health, and may be associated with tooth and gum disease. Other issues reported include coughs, shortness of breath and headaches. Nicotine, which these products often contain, is highly addictive with potentially harmful effects on the adolescent brain, which is still developing.

Enforcement is absolutely vital in this industry, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is a danger of demonising vaping for adult smokers? Vaping is 95% risk free, according to ASH, which he has mentioned, the British Heart Foundation, the British Lung Foundation, Public Health England and so on. It is therefore a vital part of a smoker’s ability to come off tobacco use. It quite literally saves lives, and therefore should be promoted to smokers.

I totally agree. As I said, the use of vaping to help adults get away from tobacco smoking has significant health benefits, but today we are talking about stamping out its use by people who are not trying to give up smoking. We are trying to protect our young people, but I totally concur with my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend is being very generous in taking interventions. I concur with his last point, but does he agree that one of the issues that we face is advertising? Vapes are stacked up like sweeties in all sorts of outlets, which presents them as rather benign and makes them attractive to younger users.

I totally concur. My hon. Friend has read my mind: I am about to talk about the advertising, the colourful labelling, the fruit flavours and so on, which draw in young people.

I have asked a number of parliamentary questions about vaping, and the recurrent theme in the Government’s answers is that they acknowledge that vapes are not risk free, and that nicotine is highly addictive and can be harmful. Some studies suggest that vaping among young people can be a gateway to risky behaviour such as drinking and tobacco smoking, which would be a perverse thing to happen. Vaping is supposed to get adults off smoking, but if it is leading young people into smoking, that is not a good thing.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech about the detriment to health of vaping for under-18s. He mentioned a study, but does he agree that there is not sufficient research on under-18s, so we do not know exactly how safe or unsafe these products are?

I agree. That is exactly right: there is a paucity of data. I will ask the Government and the Department of Health and Social Care to create the datasets so that we can make evidence-based decisions.

Concerningly, ASH Scotland suggests that children with mental health issues including mood disorders and eating disorders, who are among the most vulnerable people in society, are potentially more likely to use vapes. That is a real concern. I am passionate about mental health, especially among our young people, and I urge the Government to continue to protect the most vulnerable. That has been the hallmark of this compassionate Conservative Government.

Anecdotally, we hear much about the impact of these products. We hear reports of children’s sleep patterns being disrupted. They set their alarms for 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning so that they can vape in the middle of the night to avoid withdrawal symptoms the next day. At school, there have been reports of students leaving lessons and even walking out of examinations because they simply cannot last without the use of a vape. If vaping is having a detrimental impact on our young children’s life chances, this is a matter not merely of health but of social and educational development. One teacher in my constituency noted that the issue is so widespread that vapes are being illicitly traded in the school playground.

I want to touch on the marketing of vapes to under-18s, as colleagues have done. A particular issue with the vaping market is the flagrant targeting of under-18s as potential consumers through trendy advertising on social media. Products are promoted with bright colours and inviting fruit flavours—sweet flavours such as mango, bubblegum and cherry ice.

The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities annual review of vaping reveals that 39% of ex-smokers use fruit-flavoured vapes, against 17% who use tobacco. There absolutely are issues with marketing, advertising and presentation to young people, but does my hon. Friend agree that an overly simplistic blanket ban of flavours might have the serious unintended consequence of preventing some potential vapers from vaping, meaning that they would carry on smoking and thus massively increasing their chances of an early death?

Again, this is about the differentiation between adult use of vaping products and young people’s use of vaping products.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for making such an excellent speech. Does he agree that recruiting a new generation of addicts is the business model that the industry has forever driven, no matter whether the product kills or harms? The industry itself needs to be tackled on the issue.

I agree with the hon. Member. The industry needs to take a close look at itself, but it is also the case that a lot of the vapes that are ending up with children are coming through illicit means. We need to have a targeted approach to look at how best we can prevent our young people from accessing those products.

My hon. Friend made a very good point about advertising. We need to get across the nuanced message that vaping may be beneficial to people who want to quit smoking—although I would argue that it could become an alternative addiction rather than a stop-smoking aid—but we must also prevent children from using vapes. In the past, nuanced advertising for formula milk stated that breast milk was better at the beginning but that formula milk was a reasonable alternative for six month olds. Could a form of words be used in vaping adverts to make it clear that the products should be for people who smoke, not for those who do not?

I agree with my hon. Friend that if we can get more nuance into the advertising and labelling of vapes, that would help articulate to people the benefits of using them for the legitimate purpose of getting off tobacco smoking. It could also serve as a stern warning that young people should not take the products, because of their significant health risks. As ASH notes, 57% of e-cigarette use among 11 to 17-year-olds involves fruit flavours. Clearly and deliberately, the marketing of fruit-flavoured and trendy products is driving demand among our young people. We need to be very careful.

Aside from the nicotine, there are questions over whether the flavourings and chemicals inhaled also impact on the health risks to people who vape. For instance, in 2019 The American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology reported that the flavouring chemical cinnamaldehyde was associated with decreased mucociliary clearance in the respiratory tract due to dysregulation of mitochondrial function. That presents a compelling case to treat this issue as an urgent priority and, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) has said, to gather much-needed data in the area. We can then demonstrate the reality of what dangers our young people are potentially being exposed to in the long term.

As one teacher in my constituency has noted, the prevailing view seems to be that the use of such products is completely harmless. As the evidence I have mentioned suggests, however, that is very much not the case, as has also been acknowledged by health experts and, indeed, the Government.

Worse still, the potential impacts assume that the products are being sold in accordance with Government regulations. However, we have seen an increase in illicit and non-compliant trade of e-cigarettes. Checks on imports of these products find that regulations are regularly flouted, including higher numbers of puffs per vape and higher nicotine levels than those permitted. That also demonstrates that any Government action needs to remember online trading as well, not just physical sales in shops.

The Government are tackling the problem. I welcome the recent announcements by the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), but I believe that the emerging reality of the dangerous effects that vaping may be having on our young people presents a compelling case for Government to act and move forward on the issue. His intervention on the subject last month was a welcome and major step, and a clear signal that this Government recognise the severity of the issue.

To successfully tackle a failure in any market, a holistic approach focused on both supply and demand needs to be examined. I am, therefore, heartened that that is exactly the line of travel that the Government are taking in their call for evidence on vaping plans. They are focusing not just on illegal sales, which is vital, but on what is driving up demand among our young people, such as the influence of advertising and social media. I strongly encourage those who are watching this debate, and people at large, to take part in that call for evidence, so that we can collate more data. I am thinking in particular of those who are seeing the impact at first hand, such as those involved in schools.

As I have raised with the Ministry of Justice, it is imperative that unscrupulous sellers of vapes to under-18s should feel the full force of the law if they break it. I therefore welcome the Government’s announcement of £3 million for an illicit vapes enforcement taskforce to tackle those who are illegally selling vapes to our young people, but also to look out for products that should not be on our shelves. It is an important reminder that laws are effective only if there is the determination and resources to enforce them.

To summarise, although vaping has an important part to play in supporting adults to quit tobacco smoking for good, it must not come at the cost of creating new addictions and health issues in our young people. I am very pleased that the Government recognise the severity of this issue and are acting with compassion by acting for those most vulnerable to serious harm. It must be a priority for our health policy, and in fulfilling our commitment to young people we must tackle this real threat to them and to gather information on the potential long-term effects of these products.

I know that my hon. Friend is nearing the end of his remarks. Everybody in the Chamber acknowledges that the problem he has identified is that these products are getting into the hands of young people. He has already praised the work that the Government are doing, but what more should they be doing to prevent these products from getting into the hands of the wrong people?

I look forward to hearing from the Minister what he and the Government are going to do. Calling for evidence and having a taskforce is a good starting point, but I think that is just a staging post. We need to do more by tackling the advertising and making sure that the labelling is sufficient. The health warnings on cigarette packets are quite alarming now, and tobacco products are kept behind closed cabinets in outlets. We need to be moving in that direction, so that vapes are not like sweeties on shelves for our young kids. That is the real issue: they are appealing, colourful and fruit-flavoured products, and people think, “Do you know what? I’d like to have a try of this.” That is where people are slipping into this problem.

I fear that our young people face a public health ticking timebomb, and we as a Parliament and as a society must address it as a priority. I welcome colleagues’ interventions today, and I look forward to hearing more from the Minister about what steps the Government are going to take to tackle this very important issue.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) for securing this very important and timely debate on youth vaping, and for his excellent speech. Lots of Members have made important contributions to policy in this area, and I pay tribute to them for that, as well as for their contributions today.

Until recently, our regulations—including on the minimum age of sale, advertising restrictions and the cap on nicotine levels—have been reasonably effective at keeping the rate of vaping among under-18s low. However, over the last 18 months we have seen a surge in the use and promotion of cheap, colourful products that do not always comply with our regulations, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of children vaping. NHS figures show that 9% of 11 to 15-year-old children used e-cigarettes in 2021—up from 6% in 2018. That is a big concern, because there is every reason to think that the rate has continued to go up.

We know that vapes are not risk-free. Nicotine is highly addictive and can be harmful, and there are unanswered questions about the effects of long-term use, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) pointed out. Our message is very clear: vapes should not be used by people under the age of 18, or by non-smokers. That is why I announced on 11 April that we are stepping up our efforts to stop kids getting hooked on vaping. First, we launched a call for evidence on youth vaping to identify opportunities to reduce the number of children accessing and using vape products, and to explore where the Government can go further. That call for evidence explores a range of issues, including how we ensure regulatory compliance, the appearance and characteristics of vapes, the marketing and promotion of them, and the role of social media. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) rightly talked about them being stacked up like sweeties, and that concerns me, too. On the other hand, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) warned that this is not a straightforward matter to regulate, and pointed out the need to avoid counterproductive changes that stop people swapping from smoking to vaping.

Our call for evidence will also seek to ensure that we understand the vaping market better. It will look at such issues as the price of low-cost products. The call for evidence also considers the environmental impact of vapes, particularly the disposable ones that have become so appealing to young people.

The Minister is talking about the environmental impact. How closely is he working with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs colleagues to ensure recycling, and to ensure a circular economy in the precious metals mentioned, which must be brought back into the economy?

Closely. I am also listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), who has led discussion on the subject through her ten-minute rule Bill. She is right to be concerned about the environmental impact of disposable products. The proportion of young people using those disposable products has gone up from 8% in 2021 to 52% by 2022. Clearly, they are an important part of youth vaping.

We have heard a few calls for vaping products to be placed with tobacco products. Does the Minister agree that there is a danger in connecting vaping with tobacco to such a degree? It is not surprising that a disproportionately high number of people in this country believe that vaping is just as bad as smoking. People are put off going from smoking to vaping as a consequence. Should we not separate vaping from smoking wherever possible?

My hon. Friend is right, and I will come to that in a moment. The call for evidence that I talked about will be open for the next eight weeks, and we hope that everyone concerned will take the opportunity to share their views and put evidence in, to shape our future approach.

Absolutely, and I hope people will put in evidence on that. I will touch in a moment on something else we are doing. In the speech I mentioned, I announced the new specialised illicit vaping flying squad, a team to tackle under-age vape sales and illicit products that young people are accessing. It will hold companies to account and enforce rules.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for vaping (e-cigarettes), said that we must enforce the rules, and he is absolutely right. That is why we are providing £3 million in new funding to Trading Standards, which will help share knowledge and intelligence around the country. The squad will undertake test purchasing, so that we find out who is selling to young people. It will disrupt illicit supply, and will also do work on organised crime gangs. It will remove illegal products, not just from our shelves but at our borders. It will undertake more testing to ensure compliance with our rules, bolstering the capacity of Trading Standards. Companies that fail to comply with the law will be held accountable.

It is important that we teach young people about the risks of vaping. That is why we have published new content on the potential risks of vaping for young people on the FRANK and Better Health websites. We have also provided extra input into educational resources produced by partners, including the PSHE Association.

The Government has an objective to be smoke-free by 2030—that is, to get down to 5% of people smoking. Is the Minister concerned that if we continue to talk about the dangers and harms that may be associated with vaping, we are in grave danger of providing a disincentive for smokers to switch to a much safer alternative?

My hon. Friend has pre-empted my next paragraph almost perfectly. I was about to say that although we want to ensure that children do not take up vaping, vaping can play an important part in achieving our ambition of a smoke-free England by 2030. Vaping is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we do not want children to develop an addiction to any substance at a young age, but on the other, it is substantially less harmful than smoking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said. It is 95% safer than smoking.

Will the Minister also put in place services, similar to smoking programmes, to support people who are now addicted to vaping, to enable them to come off vaping?

I think I should try to answer the last intervention before taking another one; I will come back to my hon. Friend in a second. Vapes are not yet being used widely enough to reach their full potential as a quit smoking aid, so on 11 April, I announced new funding for a new national “swap to stop” programme—the first of its kind anywhere in the world. We will work with councils and others to offer 1 million smokers across England a free vaping starter kit. Smokers who join the scheme, which will run initially over the next two years, will join on one condition: they must commit to quitting smoking, with support. We will provide additional support to help them quit vaping after they have quit smoking. We will target the most at-risk communities first, focusing on settings such as jobcentres, homelessness centres and social housing providers. I do not know whether my hon. Friend still has a burning question.

Yes, and I thank the Minister for giving way; he has been extremely generous with his time. He has talked about the importance of educating children about the risks. Does he agree that a key problem is that many young people and children who use vapes do not believe that they are harmful at all?

My hon. Friend is quite probably right. There is a lack of understanding of some of the risks, and of the effects on mental health and wellbeing. I am very, very worried when I hear about young people at school smoking, and about the disruption that various hon. Members have raised in this debate.

I conclude by thanking all Members here for highlighting concerns about these issues, and for their contributions, not only in the debate but over a longer period. That has had an effect on Government policy, and will continue to. The Government are committed to doing all we can to prevent children and young people from vaping, while also ensuring that we use the full potential of vaping as a tool to help smokers quit.

Question put and agreed to.