Speech: Minister Neil O'Brien speech on achieving a smokefree 2030: cutting smoking and stopping kids vaping

Department Of Health

April 11
12:56 2023

Its an enormous pleasure to be here today at Policy Exchange to set out the governments next steps on vaping and smoking.

Everybody agrees that we must do more to prevent ill health in the first place - not just treat it afterwards.

Cutting smoking is one of the most evidence-based and effective interventions that we can make.

Thats why in 2019 this government set the bold ambition for England to be smokefree by 2030 reducing smoking rates to 5% or less.

Everyone knows about the health impact of smoking.

Its still sadly the single biggest cause of preventable illness and death in England.

Up to 2 out of 3 lifelong smokers will die from smoking.

Cigarettes are the only product which will kill you if used correctly.

The positive impact of stopping smoking is immediate. For those who quit, after just a few weeks lung function increases by up to 10% and circulation improves, and the risk of heart attack is half that of a smoker after one year of quitting.

The person who quits today is the person who isnt in a hospital bed next year. So, cutting smoking will help us hit the fourth of the PMs 5 priorities to cut waiting lists.

But as well as the health impact, the economic impact of smoking is also huge.

The excellent 2010 Policy Exchange paper Cough up noted that it is a popular myth that smoking is a net contributor to the economy.

In fact new analysis from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) on the costs of smoking in the UK in 2022 found that smoking has a 21 billion total cost to the public purse.

To talk you through that people used to argue that although there was a cost to the NHS from smoking, the taxes paid offset this.

But this ignores the fact that smokers are more likely than non-smokers to become sick and be out of work, and more likely to stay unwell for longer. Smokers are absent for an average of 2.7 more days per year than non-smokers.

Reducing smoking rates not only improves health outcomes and reduces the burden on the NHS, it also boosts productivity and economic growth, too.

Current smokers are 7.5% less likely to be employed compared to never smokers, and ex-smokers are 5% more likely to be employed than current smokers.

In places like Birmingham, an additional 6,000 people are out of work because of smoking. Quitting could help to put that right.

As well as the productivity impact, quitting smoking would save the average person around 2,000 a year.

In poorer parts of the country going smokefree could mean far more money circulating in the local economy. There is a positive productivity benefit but also helps to level up across the nation.

Today, as well as tackling smoking, I also want to start to address a new threat - the growth of vaping among children.

There has been a very sharp increase in children vaping - particularly disposable vapes. NHS figures for 2021 showed that 9% of 11 to 15 year old children used e-cigarettes, up from 6% in 2018. Thats a rapidly rising trend we need to stop.

Whether its disposable vapes marketed to kids with bright colours, or low prices, or cartoon characters or child-friendly flavours - or indeed products being sold that dont meet our rules on content.

Today we step up our efforts to stop kids getting hooked on vaping. My message is this: if your business plan relies on getting kids hooked on nicotine, we are coming for you.

So today I will set out:

  • what we will do to stop children and non-smokers from starting vaping
  • how we will exploit the potential of vaping as a powerful tool to stop smoking
  • how we will help more people quit smoking, particularly where rates are highest

Id like to thank Javed Khan for his independent review which has helped inform many of our next steps.

And Id also like to thank Bob Blackman in his role as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Smoking and Health, who has been a hugely positive advocate for keeping smoking on the public health agenda.

Let me start with vaping.

We need to do 2 things:

  • on the one hand, stop children taking up vaping
  • on the other, exploit the huge potential of vaping to help adult smokers to quit

NHS figures for 2021, as I mentioned, showed that 9% of 11 to 15 year old children used e-cigarettes in 2021 - thats a rising trend.

Dr Mike McKean, Vice-President of Policy for the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health, has estimated that prevalence may well be even higher now.

I think many of us as parents worry about our kids health, about them getting addicted to nicotine. The Chief Medical Officer, who is here today, has also raised concerns about children vaping. I also pay tribute to my colleague Caroline Johnson who highlighted this issue.

Thats why today, as part of work on stopping people starting smoking and vaping, we are opening a specific call for evidence on youth vaping to identify opportunities to reduce the number of children accessing and using vape products - and explore where the government can go further. We will look at where we can go beyond what the EUs Tobacco Products Directive allowed us to.

This will explore a range of issues including how we ensure regulatory compliance, look at the appearance and characteristics of vapes, about their marketing and promotion of vapes, and the role of social media, which is crucial. It will also seek to better understand the vape market, looking at issues such as the price of low cost products and disposables.

We are also working closely with colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to consider the environmental impact of vapes - particularly disposable vapes which have become so appealing to young people. In 2022, 52% of young people who vaped were using disposable products, compared to just 8% in 2021.

Over 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away each week. This accumulates to 10 tonnes of lithium a year, equivalent to the lithium batteries of a staggering 1,200 electric vehicles.

The call for evidence will be open for the next 8 weeks.

We hope that everyone concerned will take this opportunity to share their views to help shape our future approach, particularly for our young people.

We are already taking action to enforce the current rules.

I was extremely concerned to hear of certain disposable vaping products that do not adhere to our regulatory standards. There has been a particular issue about the Chinese-made Elf Bar.

Working closely with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and Trading Standards we have agreed a voluntary withdrawal of some of these products from the UK market. Some large supermarkets like Tesco are setting a good example by working across their distribution network and ensuring all their products meet the requirements.

I urge the rest of the retail sector and vape manufacturers to follow suit and to follow our vaping product rules. If they do not do this, it could result in an unlimited fine. Companies failing to comply with the law will be held accountable.

To that end today I can announce that we will go further to enforce the rules.

Working hand in glove with our enforcement agencies and learning from our work with Trading Standards on illicit tobacco, we will provide 3 million of new funding to create a specialised flying squad to enforce the rules on vaping and tackle illicit vapes and underage sales.

This national programme will help share knowledge and intelligence across regional networks - including on organised crime gangs.

It will bolster training and enforcement capacity in Trading Standards and undertake specific projects such as test purchasing in convenience stores and vape shops. We will produce guidance to help build regulatory compliance. We will remove illegal products from shelves and at our borders, and we will undertake more testing to ensure compliance with our rules.

But while we want to make sure children dont take up vaping, vaping can play an important role in helping the government achieve its smokefree 2030 ambition.

Vaping is effectively 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 hand, for adults, vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking and we now have high-quality evidence from Oxford University that compared to nicotine gum or patches, vapes are significantly more effective as a quit tool, but not more hazardous.

This is particularly true when they are combined with additional behavioural support from local stop-smoking services.

Vaping is already estimated to contribute to about 50,000 to 70,000 additional smoking quits per year in England.

However, vapes are not yet being used widely enough to reach their full potential as smoking quit aids, showing the potential power of it as a tool.

A swap to stop partnership is a scheme where smokers are provided with a vape starter kit alongside behavioural support to help them completely stop smoking.

There have already been successful local pilots of swap to stop schemes in many areas, such as in Bath, Southampton, Sheffield and Plymouth.

Learning from these proven effective pilots, today, I am delighted to announce that we will be funding a new national swap to stop scheme - the first of its kind in the world.

We will work with councils and others to offer a million smokers across England a free vaping starter kit. Smokers who join this schem

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