Recently, the provincial government proposed e-cigarette legislation that will see e-cigarettes lumped under the Tobacco Control Act. In addition to limiting how e-cigarettes are displayed and sold, the new law would prohibit adults from vaping in a vehicle with children present.
According to Terry Lake, B.C.’s Minister of Health, the impetus behind the legislation is to protect young people from potential harm. While acknowledging that there is a lack of information on what—if any—harm is caused by vaping e-cigarettes, Minister Lake rationalizes the government’s proposal on the basis that vaping “may serve as a gateway to smoking”.
However, in their fervour to protect the children from, well, potentially nothing, federal, provincial, and municipal governments are regulating vaping in an overly restrictive and counter-productive manner.
Smoking and tobacco use has been linked to cancer, heart disease, strokes, and a host of other serious and often fatal conditions. Second-hand cigarette smoke has also been proven to pose a risk to others. It was decades before governments acknowledged that smoking was dangerous and needed to be regulated. Over the years, more regulations on smoking have been put into place to address harms as they become known.
All levels of government currently regulate the sale and use of tobacco products to some degree. Federal legislation regulates importation, labelling, and advertising of tobacco products. It is federal legislation that requires pictures of diseased lungs to be placed on the outside of cigarette packages and prohibits tobacco companies from running ads with cartoon characters smoking on Saturday morning T.V.
Provincial legislation sets out where and to whom tobacco products can be sold, how they may be displayed, and prohibits smoking in certain places within the province’s jurisdiction (schools, workplaces, et cetera).
Municipal bylaws can restrict smoking in public places. Vancouver has already banned vaping in the same way it bans smoking in or near businesses, on public transit, or at bus stops.
Perhaps afraid of the mistakes of previous governments that failed to act quickly enough in regulating cigarette smoking, governments are now moving to regulate e-cigarettes in exactly the same manner. Law-makers voice concern that children are going to start smoking, or otherwise become addicted to nicotine, because e-cigarettes remain unregulated. Their rationale in treating e-cigarettes the same as tobacco products, however, is flawed: e-cigarettes simply don’t pose the same risk as tobacco products do.
Just days after the B.C. government presented the bill for first reading, on March 10, 2015, the House of Commons’ national health committee (the “Committee”) presented a report recommending against treating vaping the same as smoking. Based on the evidence it heard, the Committee found that e-cigarettes are unique and different from tobacco products and should have their own regulations.
In short, the Committee found widespread agreement that nicotine is addictive, but that e-cigarettes are far, far less harmful to one’s health than smoking tobacco, and there is very little evidence regarding the harm—if any—that may come from second-hand vapour. The Committee acknowledged the competing interests involved: on the one hand, e-cigarettes are a viable way to help millions of Canadians stop smoking; on the other hand, e-cigarettes may re-normalize smoking or get otherwise non-smokers hooked on nicotine.
While the addictive nature of nicotine was accepted by the Committee, evidence was heard that nicotine addictions are “relatively benign” and comparable to a caffeine addiction. (Note that there are no laws stopping a six year-old from getting hopped up on a double-shot macchiato at Starbucks.)
Not all e-cigarettes contain nicotine, and Health Canada has already banned the importation or sale of any e-juice containing nicotine. Despite this prohibition, keeping it out of stores isn’t going so well: e-juice with nicotine is being sold widely across Canada. Importation regulations aren’t going to be the answer to nicotine addictions.
But governments aren’t just concerned that children will start vaping; they are concerned that it will lead children—and non-smokers generally—to smoking tobacco products. However, the evidence does not supporting this fear: e-cigarettes have been around since as early as 2007, and, according to Health Canada, cigarette use amongst teenagers is continuing to decline.
It could equally be argued that vaping is just leading to vaping. Relying on an unfounded “gateway” fear as a basis for treating e-cigarettes like tobacco may be a bit short sighted. In its report, the Committee cited evidence from Dr. John Britton, who agreed that it would be a good thing to limit e-cigarette access to young people, but he argued that “if we have young people who are otherwise going to smoke, it would make far more sense to have them use an electronic cigarette.”
Further, the Committee noted that if vaping was less regulated and more accessible, it may be more appealing to existing, adult smokers who are trying to quit. The Committee’s report cited evidence that a number of smokers switch to electronic cigarettes because they can use the products indoors. The evidence was that second-hand vape poses no real occupational hazard to air quality, and that to prohibit indoor vaping would result in sending ex-smokers outside to breathe second-hand smoke. The tone of the Committee’s report was that there may be a public health benefit to make vaping more accessible and appealing than smoking.
Nonetheless, vaping is not a harmless activity and there are good policy reasons to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes to children. (Regardless of whether or not nicotine is better or worse than caffeine, I don’t want to see a six year-old vaping any more than I want to see a six year-old sucking back an Americano). Regulatory schemes, however, are not “one size fits all”. We regulate alcohol differently than we regulate cigarettes because they pose different risks. E-cigarettes pose different risks than tobacco products, and it does not make sense to regulate them in the same way.
Governments should consider the recommendations in the Committee’s report and critically evaluate if tobacco regulations are suitable for e-cigarettes.