E-cigarette controversy ignites with talk of ban at Vancouver Coastal Health facilities
Rob Palacol quit smoking about a month ago. Since then, he’s been looking for the “perfect chocolate” flavour for his nicotine puff.
That would be a bit confusing if you didn’t know that the entrepreneur has switched to electronic cigarettes. These are battery-powered cylindrical devices that turn either a nicotine or non-nicotine solution into vapour when a user takes a pull.
On a Saturday morning at the Vancouver Flea Market on Terminal Avenue, where Palacol sells surplus military items, he had brought a chocolate-hazelnut flavoured nicotine mix.
“It was easy because I still had the motions,” Palacol told the Georgia Straight about how e-cigarettes helped him quit. “I still had to pick it up, hold it like a regular cigarette, and a lot of that was habit. I needed something that simulated a real cigarette. I don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
Instead of smoking, the Winnipeg-born and Saskatoon-raised man is now “vaping”. With a tip that glows, e-cigarettes work like the real thing but without the smoke.
He said that they’re also cheaper. A 10-millilitre bottle of flavoured nicotine solution costs about $10. It’s equivalent to 10 packs of regular cigarettes, according to Palacol.
Palacol got his first e-cigarette from a Vancouver store in a purchase that Health Canada doesn’t consider to be compliant with the Food and Drugs Act.
In a 2009 advisory, the federal health agency stated that electronic smoking products, which include nicotine mixes, “may pose health risks and have not been fully evaluated for safety, quality, and efficacy”.
Vancouver Coastal Health has also taken notice of e-cigarettes.
“This is becoming a huge topic as more and more youth increase their consumption of e-cigarettes,” medical health officer Dr. Meena Dawar told the Straight in a phone interview on January 10.
The province’s largest health authority is poised to ban e-cigarettes from hospitals, community health centres, and its other premises, according to Dawar.
“What that means is just as you cannot smoke on a health authority property, you cannot use e-cigarettes as well,” she said, adding that the new policy is making its way through approval phases.
Dawar also said that Vancouver Coastal Health will be talking to school districts to encourage them to include e-cigarettes in their antismoking policy.
She added that the health authority will likewise “recommend both to the province and to municipalities that e-cigarettes need to be regulated”.
“Currently, they can be used anywhere in public spaces, and that is a concern because it can renormalize smoking behaviour for children,” Dawar noted.
According to Health Canada, tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, and more than 70 of these are carcinogens.
Carl Phillips, a former associate professor at the University of Alberta, has argued that there is a potential for tobacco harm reduction through smokeless nicotine products like moist snuff.
Phillips, who has received funding from the tobacco industry, noted in a paper he coauthored and titled “Smokeless Tobacco: the Epidemiology and Politics of Harm” that nicotine can be obtained without combustion by means he claimed are 99 percent safer than smoking.
In notes for another paper, Phillips and coauthors pointed out that in addition to its recreational use, nicotine provides relief to people who suffer from conditions like depression, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorders.
Some of these benefits are similar to those derived from caffeine, the authors noted.
The Straight asked Vancouver Coastal Health’s Dawar about tobacco harm reduction.
“That’s very interesting because, obviously, the proponents of e-cigarettes would say these are safer alternatives to cigarettes, and that is true,” Dawar responded. “They are a safer alternative to cigarettes for smokers. We just want to be clear about that: that for smokers they are a safer alternative.”
But e-cigarettes are not completely harmlesss, Dawar said. She noted that they contain propylene glycol, a respiratory irritant. “Secondhand vapour is documented to contain nicotine and propylene glycol and traces of heavy metals,” the doctor added.
According to Dawar, Health Canada allows the sale of e-cigarettes that don’t contain nicotine.
Grant Jonasson has been in the e-cigarette business since 2009. He said that a starter kit, which contains an e-cigarette and accessories, costs, on average, $80.
Jonasson also related that he sometimes makes deliveries to hospitals, where patients use the device indoors.
“Some of them can’t get out because they’re hooked up to all these machines, and the [nicotine] gum and the patch isn’t working for them, and they’re going crazy,” Jonasson told the Straight in an interview at the Vancouver Flea Market, where he sells e-cigarettes on weekends.
The IT professional suggested that one reason why the government hasn’t allowed the sale of e-cigarettes with nicotine is that it’s still looking at how to recover taxes that will be lost if people turn from tobacco to this alternative.
Jonasson noted that the government is collecting more money from tobacco than it spends on health-care costs related to tobacco-smoking.
In 2002, tobacco use resulted in $4.4 billion in direct health-care costs, according to the Canadian Lung Association.
Based on figures compiled by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, the federal and provincial governments collected $7 billion in taxes from tobacco sales in 2002-2003. In the preceding fiscal year, it was $5 billion.
The City of Vancouver hasn’t received complaints about e-cigarettes so far, according to Coun. Kerry Jang.
Although the city hasn’t banned e-cigarettes, it will be consulting Vancouver Coastal Health on what to do, Jang added.
“What we’re seeing is when people use one, often because they look exactly like a cigarette, people say to them, ‘Hey, this is a nonsmoking place,’ and people comply,” Jang told the Straight in a phone interview.
As for Palacol, he has found a new business opportunity. He’s starting to sell e-cigarettes online.