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Health Canada is moving to severely restrict e-cigarette advertisements in an effort to curb the number of Canadian youth who vape, a known gateway to tobacco cigarettes.

The proposed changes, released on Tuesday, would prohibit ads from public places where young people are likely to see them, such as billboards, on public transit and in malls. Ads would also be banned at retail stores where youth are allowed access, including online shops, as well as print publications, websites and social media aimed at young people. The ban would also apply to TV and radio, but only during and immediately before and after programs aimed at youth.

Concerns over youth vaping have accelerated in recent months, following the introduction of new vaping products sold by companies such as Juul Labs that contain higher levels of nicotine than older e-cigarettes. While new federal legislation passed last year includes a ban on the sale of vaping products to minors, experts say they are seeing a steady rise in the number of young people who vape.

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The latest available federal data, from 2017, show nearly one in four people aged 15 to 19 in Canada have tried e-cigarettes. Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor’s office said in an interview she has been inundated with stories from police officers, teachers and other concerned Canadians about the problematic rise in youth vaping.

Across the country, stories of schools struggling to tackle the problem of vaping are starting to emerge, with one Ottawa high school recently removing the doors to its bathrooms to stop students from vaping inside.

A study published in the journal JAMA Network Open earlier this month found young people who used e-cigarettes were four times more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes compared with peers who didn’t use e-cigarettes.

Yet research also shows e-cigarettes can help smokers who want to quit. Health Canada’s proposed changes would exempt specialty vape shops from its advertising restrictions, as minors aren’t allowed inside. Last week, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 18 per cent of adults who use e-cigarettes as a smoking-cessation device were successful in their efforts to quit, compared with about 10 per cent of those who used nicotine replacement therapies, such as nicotine gum.

The changes proposed by Health Canada come several months after Ontario became the first province to pass amendments to allow vaping companies to advertise their products to the public. If the federal changes pass, the advertisements currently allowed in Ontario would be banned.

The ban would also apply to TV and radio, but only during and right before and after programs aimed at youth. Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, said the changes don’t go far enough, as young people watch plenty of TV shows that aren’t aimed specifically at a youth market, such as sporting events.

The government also signalled it may further crack down on the vaping market. In a statement on Tuesday, Health Canada said it plans to introduce a proposal in March that could target flavours, nicotine concentration and product design that may be appealing to young people.

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“There’s all kinds of shows that kids watch, programs that are not a Saturday morning cartoon,” he said. “There’s no reason for there to be ads on TV and radio.”

Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs for Imperial Tobacco, said the proposed changes make sense.

“It’s not a surprise and I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Youth should not be having access to vaping products, period.”

In a statement, JUUL Labs said that its products are not intended for minors and are aimed at adult smokers looking for an alternative to cigarettes. The company said it will review the proposed regulations and looks forward to having an “evidence-based discussion” with the government.

In the United States, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb has declared e-cigarette use among young people as an epidemic and said the agency plans to ban flavours from vaping products.

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