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Current rules prevent vaping companies from making any health-benefit claims, but Health Canada’s consultation document says it may make an exception.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The federal government is considering letting e-cigarette companies promote the health benefits of their products to the public, despite the growing number of young Canadians who vape and mounting questions about the long-term risks.

Health Canada conducted a closed consultation last fall with industry and health groups on health claims that the industry could use in advertisements and promotional materials.

Current rules prevent vaping companies from making any health-benefit claims. But Health Canada’s consultation document says it may make an exception to allow e-cigarette manufacturers to use promotional statements that suggest vaping products are less harmful than cigarettes. Any statements “would be supported by science and expressed in clear terms to ensure that tobacco users are better informed about the relative health effects of using vaping products," the document says.

The proposed promotional statements include “Switching completely from smoking to e-cigarettes will reduce harms to your health,” and “If you are a smoker, switching completely to vaping is a much less harmful option.”

Health Canada did not respond to questions about the proposed changes.

Physicians, researchers and health organizations say allowing companies to make those claims would be a critical misstep because such statements play down the risks of e-cigarettes and could encourage more young people to vape.

Theo Moraes, a staff respirologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, said there is no credible evidence showing that vaping products are safer than traditional cigarettes and companies should not be allowed to promote such an idea.

“When you look at the totality of the influence of vaping on society, it is by far way more harmful. It has contributed much more harm than benefit,” Dr. Moraes said.

There are growing concerns over the dangers of e-cigarettes, prompted in large part by a growing outbreak of vaping-related lung illness, which has been linked to 26 deaths and 1,299 illnesses in the United States. In Canada, there has been one confirmed case of vaping-related illness in Quebec, two probable cases in New Brunswick and one probable case in B.C.

In addition to the short-term problems, health groups such as the Canadian Cancer Society say e-cigarettes also pose long-term health risks and that Health Canada should move to quickly ban advertising as a way of protecting young people.

Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, said it would be a mistake to grant companies the ability to make promotional health statements.

“There shouldn’t be public-facing advertising by tobacco companies or others for e-cigarettes,” Mr. Cunningham said. “Do we want to be trusting tobacco companies to be able to engage in widespread messaging? No, we don’t.”

Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs with Imperial Tobacco Canada, which sells the Vype e-cigarette brand, said the approval of such claims would be “fundamental” moving forward with its efforts to target adult smokers.

Caroline Evans, head of corporate affairs with JTI-Macdonald Corp., which sells the Logic e-cigarette brand, said the government’s proposal is “a step in the right direction.”

“We support any initiative that would give adult smokers the information they need,” she said.

Juul Labs Canada referred questions to the Vaping Industry Trade Association. Daniel David, president of the association, said he’s encouraged by Health Canada’s proposal.

“Our hope is, so long as there is that ability to market directly to adult smokers and vapers and use certain authorized statements, I think it would be our right,” Mr. David said.

Earlier this year, Health Canada conducted a public consultation on proposed changes that would restrict most forms of e-cigarette advertising in Canada, something the industry opposes. A coalition of health groups launched a public appeal last month for the next government to adopt immediate measures to prevent youth vaping, such as a ban on advertising and flavours.

Critics say the federal government has already mishandled the vaping file by allowing the industry to expand its reach while failing to implement necessary policies to address the looming youth vaping crisis.

“It’s astonishing,” said Andrew Pipe, chair of the Heart and Stroke Foundation and a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. “To me, it’s one very small component of a much bigger public-health challenge, which requires regulation in a much broader, much more comprehensive manner.”

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