Canada’s showdown with vaping is about to reach high noon.
Late last year, a study on electronic cigarettes was initiated after the Canadian Health Minister Rona Ambrose sent a letter to Ben Lobb, Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, asking the committee to study the risks and benefits of electronic cigarettes. The committee held eight meetings and came up with 14 recommendations.
While the subsequent report recommends establishing a regulatory framework for electronic cigarettes, an outright ban doesn’t look to be in the cards.
“The idea of a ban is not really an option at all. They’re here,” said Lobb recently. “Most of the experts concluded that e-cigarettes are better for your health than tobacco cigarettes. If we’re looking at reducing harm to Canadians, that’s a good starting point.”
The grey area around the ecig Canada debate has become untenable. And while no date has been announced, a decision from Health Canada is clearly imminent. While supporters say vaping is harmless to bystanders and could even be beneficial as a tool for smoking cessation, Health Canada’s only advisory on the matter was a thin offering made on March 27, 2009, when it warned Canadians not to purchase or use electronic smoking products.
But the appetite for vaping is growing. The Standing Committee report noted that 741 shipments containing electronic cigarettes were “recommended for refusal” at the Canada-United States border between April 1st and June 30th of 2014.
Although vaping has been around since the 1960’s it popularity has risen sharply in recent years. Users employ a battery powered personal vaporizing device to inhale water vapour flavoured with nicotine or other flavours instead of cigarette smoke. The popularity of the practice has no doubt been aided by widespread bans on smoking cigarettes in public places, after the health dangers of second-hand smoke became clear.
Worldwide the retail vaping industry is expected to soon grow to $3.5-billion.
Last year, within the span of two days, the World Health Organization called for the ban of indoor vaping, while the American Heart Association praised its benefits.
The Canadian report noted that the U.S and the U.K. have not banned electronic cigarettes. It suggested that regulating e-cigarettes as tobacco products by including them in the Tobacco Act would be the most straightforward path, finding very little support or reasoning for regulating them as therapeutic or consumer products.
The question on vaping that is being confronted by governments worldwide comes down to whether the practice is a net-positive or net-negative for society. Some believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
“The use of small doses of nicotine is very helpful in getting individuals to stop smoking, which is reflected in the success of nicotine-replacement therapy,” says Dr. Andrew Pipe, MD, chief of prevention and rehabilitation at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
But others think there is a huge risk that vaping could be a gateway to smoking. A recent survey found that more teens are getting their first taste of nicotine from electronic cigarettes than from regular ones.
“The data I’m presenting is the first time we’ve seen such high rates in youth. It is surprising. The one clue about reasons for the high rates is the fact that very few [young people] perceive e-cigarettes to be harmful,” says Wilson Compton, deputy director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington. “What we’ve seen in the most recent data from 2014 is the surprisingly high rates of use of e-cigarettes by 14-, 16- and 18-year-olds. Those rates of e-cigarette use are higher than traditional cigarettes. So that’s quite surprising that a larger number of teenagers in the US are now reporting current use of e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco cigarettes.”
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Health believes it has answers for this problem, which it describes as the risk of the “renormalization of smoking”. These include making e-cigarettes visually distinct from other tobacco products by not having a glowing tip or filter, prohibiting flavouring that specifically appeal to young people, preventing tobacco companies from placing their logos on vaping equipment, and securing e-cigarettes in child resistant packaging.
Worldwide, few countries have outright bans on vaping, instead opting for a regulatory patchwork of half-measures. South Korea taxes the hardware. Switzerland and Sweden ban the hardware but not the practice of vaping. China lets the responsibility fall to the municipal level.
Those looking for international leadership on e-smoking will likely come away as confused as nation states seem to be on the matter. Last year, within the span of two days, the World Health Organization called for the ban of indoor vaping, while the American Heart Association praised its benefits.