Health Canada has done an admirably relentless job of regulating tobacco products into submission, but it has largely sat on its hands when it comes to an innovation known as e-cigarettes. Other than releasing a statement in 2009 to the effect that the devices need to be approved and possibly even licensed for sale, and firmly asking anyone selling them in Canada “to stop doing so immediately,” the department has been a bystander. In the meantime, the electronic-cigarette market has exploded in the United States and is starting to do the same in Canada, despite existing in a kind of legal grey market in this country. Some have predicted the devices will be outselling traditional cigarettes within 10 years. Health Canada can’t stay on the sidelines any longer.
An electronic cigarette is essentially a battery attached to a chamber containing a liquid. The energy from the battery heats the liquid and turns it into a vapour, which users draw into their mouth and lungs. The liquid at the heart of the e-cigarette, the so-called e-juice, is flavoured (watermelon; cherry cheesecake; lemon/lime; tobacco; etc.) and contains between zero and 2.4 per cent nicotine, depending on the user’s preference.
E-cigarettes’ chief selling point is that they can deliver nicotine without the 70-odd carcinogens that are created by the combustion of tobacco. They are nicotine without smoke or second-hand smoke. As such they mimic other nicotine replacement therapies, such as patches and gum, which are available over-the-counter in Canada. But no manufacturer has come forward and asked to be classified as a replacement therapy, choosing instead to remain in the grey zone created by Health Canada’s inaction, which allows the selling of e-cigarettes for recreational purposes. We were easily able to buy one in Toronto in spite of Health Canada’s gentle ban, and then order the nicotine-laden e-juice online from U.S. suppliers.
The Electronic Cigarette Trade Association of Canada, an industry group, wants to see these products sold in this country without being classified as a tobacco product, which has a certain logic to it, because they don’t contain tobacco. The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association wants them to be treated like tobacco products, which is also fair, because while the devices are certainly less dangerous that cigarettes, the candy-like flavours can be used to attract children, and they can result in a nicotine addiction and potentially lead to tobacco use. They might be a smoking-cessation and harm-reduction tool – but they could also be a gateway drug. The NSRA legitimately worries as well that e-cigarettes could re-normalize smoking and undo all the work Health Canada and others have done to marginalize the habit. And there is no data yet on what the constant inhalation of propylene glycol, a key component of e-juice, will do in the long run.
Consumers deserve clarity from Health Canada. Are these devices banned or not? Safe or not? A good way to stop smoking – or a way to start? A lot has changed since 2009. Time for an update, Health Canada. Your smoke break is over.