The Canadian government recently consulted on its proposals for regulating—read:banning—flavors used in vaping products. Its supposed justifications include a perceived increase in youth vaping exposing young people to harm, and the notion that vaping is a “gateway” into cigarette smoking.
Both concerns are flawed to say the least, as is Health Canada’s claim that banning all flavors except tobacco and menthol is any kind of solution.
According to Statistics Canada, teen smoking has been falling more rapidly than in previous years and is now at a record low. If vapes were driving cigarette use, surely smoking rates would be increasing? When it comes to teen vaping, research suggests that youth who vape would be smoking at higher rates if vapes weren’t available. Data from more than one country have shown that most daily teen vapers have previously tried smoking. And research has also shown that vaping is a gateway out of—not into—smoking.
By eradicating flavors, Health Canada risks ridding vaping of one of its most prominent attractions.
Health Canada’s consultation document suggests that existing smoking cessation methods like traditional nicotine replacement therapy and medications work, while vaping is an unproven way to quit smoking. This entirely contradicts evidence which repeatedly shows vaping to be more effective in helping smokers to quit than NRT.
The consultation document also claims that young people are being exposed to vaping-related harms, yet Health Canada admits that “There is currently no data on the long-term health consequences of vaping due to the relatively recent use of these products in Canada.” When we know that vapes are vastly safer than cigarettes—and that millions of people have used them as an effective route away from the established deadly long-term harms of smoking—it is not proportionate to take such a strong precautionary stance.
Regarding flavors, Health Canada says that tobacco and unsweetened menthol should be adequate for vapers. This ignores the fact that many adult smokers find vape flavors essential to their efforts to quit. Governments simply should not be creating barriers for switching to safer products.
There is also a lot of evidence that flavors prevent people from returning to smoking. In a study published in July 2021 by George Washington University, 33.2 percent of vapers aged 18-34 said that without flavors they were likely to switch back to cigarettes. By eradicating flavors, Health Canada risks ridding vaping of one of its most prominent attractions.
Health Canada also attaches no value to dual use … This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process by which safer alternatives attract and keep smokers.
Health Canada also attaches no value to dual use of vapes and cigarettes, and therefore cares little if dual users revert to only smoking. “It is … anticipated that certain dual users would relapse to smoking only as a result of the proposal,” reads the document. “However, benefits of vaping by people who smoke are only accrued if they completely switch to vaping.”
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process by which safer alternatives attract smokers and keep them as reduced-risk consumers instead. Unless a smoking cessation method is 100 percent effective immediately, there will be continued smoking in the period between attempting to quit and successfully quitting smoking. Dual use should be understood as a transitional phase in the migration from smoking to vaping.
Health Canada is admitting defeat by saying there is no value in dual users. It is the heaviest smokers —and therefore the hardest to reach—who stay in the dual use phase longest before switching entirely.
Most damning of all, the Health Canada justifies its proposed policies in part with the contention that businesses which sell vaping products will benefit from an increase in tobacco sales instead as a result. This may be correct, but how can it be what any responsible government wants to achieve?
Canada should not be trying to re-invent the wheel on vaping regulations when they could just look across the Atlantic and replicate an environment which addresses their concerns and is working admirably.
Here in the United Kingdom, vaping is widely encouraged as an option for smokers looking to quit. The National Health Service recommends them to smokers and the government and Royal College of Physicians advocate for “promoting e-cigarettes widely as a substitute for smoking.”
Canada would be well-advised to replicate regulation that works in the UK.
Despite a wealth of flavors being readily available, UK tobacco control organization Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) reports that young never-smokers do not take up vaping because they find flavors and packaging attractive. Only 0.7 percent of 11–18-year-olds who regularly use e-cigarettes were not former smokers.
Annual surveys by ASH have also charted the progress of how dual use leads to full switching to safer products. This year, the UK has 3.6m vapers, two-thirds of whom are ex-smokers who have fully switched. This proportion has increased steadily from 33 percent in 2014. Denying the benefit of dual use as part of a journey is to throw away a big prize for public health.
The UK’s liberal regulation of alternative nicotine products has not led to a “wild west” of nicotine use, nor has it led to a rampant youth vaping “epidemic.” Instead, it has served to demystify vaping products and place them squarely in the category of smoking cessation tools.
Canada would be well-advised to replicate regulation that works in the UK rather than wasting taxpayer money on proposals that would be disastrous for public health.
Photograph via Pixabay