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Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations 2015

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 19 March 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Nicotine Inhaling Products (Age of Sale and Proxy Purchasing) Regulations 2015.

Relevant document: 25th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, these regulations restrict children’s access to electronic cigarettes. I am glad that we have the opportunity to debate these regulations, as they are the final element of the package of measures the Government introduced in the Children and Families Act aimed at protecting young people from tobacco and nicotine addiction and the serious health harms of smoked tobacco.

The provisions in the Act give Ministers regulation-making powers to introduce an age of sale requirement for electronic cigarettes and we have taken the decision to do so. The market for electronic cigarettes—which are also known as e-cigarettes—has developed rapidly in recent years. There are many different types and brands now available. Some of them are designed to look and feel like conventional cigarettes; others have a tank or reservoir which is filled and refilled with liquid nicotine. E-cigarettes can be disposable or rechargeable.

Most of the e-cigarettes on the market are flavoured and some of these flavours, such as cherry cola, bubble gum and gummy bear, may be appealing to children. The use of e-cigarettes is also increasing. Action on Smoking and Health estimates that 2.1 million adults in Britain currently use them. This is an increase on the estimated 700,000 users in 2012. Use of e-cigarettes by people under the age of 18 is not currently widespread in this country; however, international evidence suggests that this may increase. The emerging evidence suggests that awareness of e-cigarettes by British children is high. A Public Health England report found that two-thirds—66%—of 11 to 18-year olds had heard of e-cigarettes. Some 7% had tried e-cigarettes at least once and 2% reported using them sometimes or often. E-cigarettes are widely promoted through social media. They are sold in a wide range of retail outlets, including supermarkets, newsagents, specialist shops and pharmacies, and are often prominently displayed and promoted in store.

It is clear that more research is needed before we can determine whether e-cigarettes are acting as a gateway into tobacco use. While e-cigarette use by children is currently associated with existing tobacco smoking, research published by the Welsh Government provides tentative evidence that e-cigarette use may represent a new form of childhood experimentation with nicotine. The Chief Medical Officer has raised concern about e-cigarette use by children and the World Health Organization has recommended that they should not be sold to minors.

Nicotine is highly addictive; it is five to 10 times more potent than cocaine or morphine, and young people can rapidly develop nicotine addiction. Research shows that adolescents are more sensitive to the rewarding effects of nicotine and this may be a reason why many people start to smoke during adolescence. We are aware that responsible e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers do not sell e-cigarettes to children at the moment. However, we have decided to introduce an age-of-sale requirement; we consider that concerns about the increased awareness and use of these products by children make this an appropriate step to take. The age of sale requirement will also provide clarity and consistency for retailers and enforcement officers.

Proxy purchasing occurs when a person over 18 buys an age-restricted product on behalf of someone underage. Young people are known to approach strangers outside shops or ask friends, neighbours or, in some cases, parents to buy tobacco for them. That is why we introduced a new offence of proxy purchasing of tobacco in the Children and Families Act. The regulations extend this offence to cover e-cigarettes.

I shall briefly set out what the regulations will do. The first set of regulations defines a “nicotine inhaling product” as any device which is intended to enable nicotine to be inhaled through a mouthpiece. The definition encompasses e-cigarettes, including disposable and rechargeable types, and certain component parts such as nicotine refill cartridges and nicotine refill substances, often called “e-liquids”. It does not cover component parts such as batteries or charging devices. The regulations do not apply to tobacco products, because we already have age of sale laws for tobacco. The regulations include exemptions for products that are licensed as medicines and so are subject to separate regulatory rules. There are exemptions for nicotine inhaling products that are a medicine or medical device made available in accordance with a valid prescription by a pharmacist. The regulations also exempt the sale of any nicotine inhaling product licensed as a non-prescription medicine—that is to say, available for general sale—and which the licensing authority has determined is indicated for use by children under 18. In such cases, the seller need not be a pharmacist, as such medicines can be sold in other types of shops including newsagents. This means that those under 18 years trying to quit smoking would still be able to access e-cigarettes as well as products such as nicotine patches or gum.

The regulations also extend the proxy purchasing provision in the Act to make it an offence for an adult to buy, or attempt to buy, a nicotine inhaling product on behalf of a child aged under 18 years. The penalties for these offences are set out in the Act: a person making a proxy purchase may be issued with a fixed penalty notice or could be referred to court; and the adult making the purchase would be committing the offence, not the retailer. A retailer guilty of selling nicotine inhaling products to someone under the age of 18 could be fined up to £2,500 on conviction. Local authority trading standards officers would be responsible for enforcing the regulations, as they enforce much of the tobacco control laws.

The regulations bring the age of sale offence for nicotine inhaling products within the scope of primary authority. This arrangement allows businesses to form a statutory partnership with one local authority, which then provides advice for other local regulators to take into account when carrying out inspections or addressing non-compliance.

We are also debating a second set of regulations, which set the amount of the fixed penalty notice for the proxy purchase provisions at £90; this is reduced to £60 if it is paid within 15 days. This provides consistency for retailers and enforcement officers as it will bring the proxy purchase of tobacco and nicotine inhaling products in line with the equivalent offence for alcohol.

The regulations will apply to England and Wales and have been agreed by the Welsh Government. They would come into force on 1 October 2015. We have decided to use the October—rather than April—common commencement date to allow time for the training of enforcement officers and to raise retailer and public awareness.

There will also be further negative statutory instruments to complete the enforcement regime. One will set out the fixed penalty notice form for the proxy purchase of tobacco and nicotine inhaling products in England, and one will add age of sale and proxy purchasing to the list of offences for which enforcement officers can carry out directed surveillance, subject to existing safeguards; for example, to allow test purchasing operations.

The Department of Health held a six-week public consultation on the draft regulations and received 81 responses. The consultation responses confirmed that many responsible manufacturers recommend that their products are for use by adults only and responsible retailers already voluntarily restrict children from accessing e-cigarettes. Almost all respondents supported the policy aims and the specific proposals set out in the regulations. Retailers, e-cigarette manufacturers, local authorities, enforcement officers and the public health community have all been absolutely clear that they want these regulations in place.

The regulations are business-friendly and a number of retail organisations have told us that putting the age of sale in law will help those responsible retailers that already refuse to sell e-cigarettes to children, by ensuring that they are not at a competitive disadvantage by doing so. The cost of the regulations is estimated to be very small indeed and will be mainly on businesses that currently profit from selling e-cigarettes to children and young people.

Many consultation respondents emphasised that this is a fast-moving market in terms of product development as well as patterns of consumer use, and that research evidence into the effectiveness of e-cigarettes in smoking cessation and potential long-term health harms is still emerging. I agree that these are all important aspects of this policy area and we have therefore included a duty to review the regulations within five years of them coming into force.

As I said earlier, I am very pleased to be able to present these regulations to the Committee. They represent the final stage in the implementation of the important public health measures in the Children and Families Act. In recent weeks, we have also introduced legislation to end smoking in private cars carrying children, and earlier this week noble Lords debated the regulations that will introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products. They are all part of our comprehensive approach to tobacco control and make an important contribution to our vision of a tobacco-free generation in the future. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for introducing these regulations and welcome the way in which they have been drafted. Clearly, a great deal of care was taken in the drafting, and they seem eminently sensible.

It is most reassuring to know that the Association of Convenience Stores welcomes these regulations and the clarity that they provide. It says:

“We support strong enforcement against proxy purchasing of tobacco. We need to see these properly enforced, something that is lacking with the same powers that are in place for alcohol proxy purchasing”,

and that the penalty for proxy purchasing on e-cigarettes puts everything consistently in line. Indeed, it has welcomed the age restriction.

I was glad, too, to hear the reference to the Welsh study because it was the data from Wales that really began to make me personally concerned about these products. There is evidence of increased use among under-18s. I know some people will say that data from ASH are biased, but ASH has been fairly neutral in its view on electronic cigarettes because of the way that they have helped people quit ordinary tobacco cigarettes. It has found that the number of 11 to 18 year-olds who have tried an electronic cigarette increased from 5% in 2013 to 8% in 2014, although it did put the caveat around those figures that the use is closely linked with smoking behaviour.

One piece of research which is really important to have on the record is the work from Counotte and colleagues, published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in 2011, which found that,

“nicotine exposure during adolescence can disrupt brain development bearing long-term consequences on executive cognitive function in adulthood”.

These are new products, with high levels of nicotine in them. We know that the propensity for the developing brain in the age group up until 25 years to develop addictions of all sorts, right across the board, and addictive behaviour is greater than in the older brain. There is a concern that exposure in the young leads to a much greater propensity to develop nicotine addiction.

I have been concerned at the way that these products are marketed, especially to the young, and about their appeal almost as a fashion accessory. When I have looked at those shops which specialise in selling these products, they have made me feel as if I was probably a bit too old to go and buy one. They seem to be marketed very much to a young, vibrant population, which I find alarming. If they are shown to be as addictive as they might be, this will create a long-term market for them in the future.

I have been to several meetings about electronic cigarettes, including one held here in your Lordships’ House at which I was concerned at the almost aggressive way in which vaping was being pursued by some people present, which set alarm bells ringing a bit in my head over the process. These regulations are proportionate, timely and welcomed by those who have the responsibility for selling these products. I am glad that they appear to have universal support.

My Lords, I welcome both sets of regulations. The Opposition fully support them. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I was very impressed by the evidence from the Association of Convenience Stores and its support for the regulations. It is very persuasive in relation to the introduction of a minimum age of sale and I commend the ACS for the responsible briefing that we were sent ahead of these regulations.

The noble Earl referred to the research, such as the Welsh data and the evidence we have received from ASH, and mentioned the CMO’s concerns. Essentially, although one can certainly see that these products can have a beneficial health impact for many adult smokers, there is this issue about whether children go to smoking through these e-products. Is the noble Earl satisfied that enough research is being undertaken at the moment, either through the traditional research areas such as the MRC and Wellcome or perhaps through Public Health England? I do not know if he has information about this, but clearly it would be good to know that his department is keeping a continuing watchful eye to ensure that enough research is being done. Particularly relating to children, there is enough uncertainty around to make us want to ensure that there is ongoing research on this.

I have another question for the Minister, raised by the evidence that ASH submitted to his department when it was consulting on the regulations. ASH says that there is real confusion about the relative risks of electronic cigarettes compared to smoking, not just among the general public but among health professionals. It quotes from newspaper articles saying that smokers have been given advice by medical people and have had the impression that it is nicotine rather than tobacco smoke that is harmful. ASH quotes a study presented at the UK National Smoking Cessation Conference; it was some years ago so the profession may be more up to date now, but in one study presented at the conference a substantial proportion of GPs incorrectly asserted that nicotine in cigarettes caused CVD, strokes and lung cancer.

The point that ASH makes is that at the same time as regulations are introduced, the Department of Health should promote better understanding of the relative harm of electronic cigarettes and other nicotine products, including those authorised as medicine and their potential benefit to smokers. I understand that with regard to children there are areas where we are uncertain, but there are areas where we are more certain as well. I would be interested to know whether any advice or guidance accompanying the regulations is to be given to medical practitioners in particular.

I welcome the proxy purchasing offence, which is something that we very much support. The Minister quoted cases of young smokers having their cigarettes bought for them by another person, and outlawing this will help to crack down on it and send a wider public message that this is wrong. The other point comes back to the issue raised by the ACS regarding the e-cigarette issue: introducing the offence will give greater power to responsible shopkeepers not to serve people who they know, or strongly suspect, are going to pass cigarettes on to children. Overall, we are glad to see these regulations and to support them.

My Lords, I welcome the support that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, have given to these regulations. I shall respond to the questions and points that they have raised. The study mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, was referenced in our consultation document. It was an important study, showing the impact of nicotine on the adolescent brain, and it influenced us considerably in informing the policy.

E-cigarettes are not risk-free. We do not know enough about the long-term health effects of adults using them, let alone children. There have as yet been no long-term studies to examine whether e-cigarettes serve as a gateway to tobacco use. Therefore, we cannot be certain at this stage whether there is a gateway effect from the use of e-cigarettes into tobacco smoking. Further research is needed to answer the question definitively. However, we know that nicotine is highly addictive, and we wish to protect children from the risk of nicotine addiction and the impact that nicotine can have on the developing adolescent brain.

The noble Baroness expressed a fear, which I share, about the aggressive marketing of these products. It is worth noting that the revised European tobacco products directive, which will apply from 20 May next year, includes a ban on advertising e-cigarettes, with a cross-border dimension—that is, advertising through television, radio, newspapers, magazines and sponsorship of sports events.

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about what are sometimes seen as mixed messages around e-cigarettes, there is no doubt that, looked at in a certain context, e-cigarettes could be seen to have a role in enabling smokers to quit where they have tried other methods and not succeeded. We recognise that e-cigarettes are used by some smokers in that way. That is why the Government are working towards a regulatory framework that ensures that these devices meet basic standards of safety, quality and efficacy. We are clear that e-cigarettes must be accompanied by sufficient information to enable users to make informed choices.

The noble Lord asked about research. I agree that these matters must be kept under the policy spotlight going forward. The National Institute for Health Research recently commissioned a large, randomised control trial to examine the efficacy of e-cigarettes compared with conventional nicotine replacement therapy when used within UK stop smoking services. That research study is inevitably quite long-term. It is envisaged that the project will end in 2018, but the NIHR is confident that it will improve our current understanding considerably.

Motion agreed.