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A man smokes an e-cigarette in Toronto, August 7, 2015.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

Ottawa has introduced new legislation to rein in the country's burgeoning vaping industry, including rules that would ban the sale or promotion of e-cigarettes to people under 18.

The proposed changes are designed to discourage youths from vaping while ensuring that adults who want to use the battery-powered devices to quit smoking have access to them, Health Minister Jane Philpott told reporters in Ottawa Tuesday.

"There will be work in there that will address not being able to use certain flavours – bubblegum flavour, cotton candy flavour – that are appealing specifically to young people. And there will also be regulations around the promotion of the products," Dr. Philpott said of the regulations that will eventually accompany the legislation.

Right now, e-cigarettes – battery-powered tubes that vaporize liquid – exist in a regulatory grey zone. Nicotine-containing e-cigarettes are not technically approved for sale in Canada, despite the proliferation of shops hawking them across the country.

The package of long-awaited legislative changes unveiled Tuesday would provide two different paths toward formal approval by Ottawa: one for e-cigarettes that promise to help smokers quit smoking and one for devices that make no health claims.

The proposals would also prohibit e-cigarette makers from promoting flavours that appeal to children, give Health Canada the power to eventually mandate the display of health warnings on e-cigarettes and protect workers in federally regulated industries from the possible effects of second-hand vapour, just as the government does for second-hand smoke.

The vaping industry and provincial governments alike have been asking Ottawa to create national rules for e-cigarettes as the devices have grown in popularity. (Thirteen per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 have tried e-cigarettes, according to the federal government's 2015 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, up from 9 per cent in 2013.)

In the meantime, every province except Alberta and Saskatchewan has filled the federal legislative vacuum with an e-cigarette law of its own, leading to a patchwork of rules – though all the provincial laws prohibit selling e-cigarettes to minors.

Sam Tam, a spokesman for the Canadian Vaping Association (CVA), said he was pleased the federal government was finally stepping onto the field with a plan that acknowledges vaping is likely a less harmful alternative to tobacco.

"We've mentioned a lot about vaping as a harm-reduction alternative over cigarettes," said Mr. Tam, who represents more than 200 CVA members, including e-cigarette makers, distributors and vape shop owners. "We're really pleased that we're getting that recognition. The science is catching up with the proof that vaping is less harmful than smoking."

Still, vaping research is in its infancy and published studies have conflicting results. While Health Canada acknowledges that vaping could have public health benefits if it helps people quit smoking, it also warns the devices could prove harmful if they act as a gateway to traditional cigarettes for teens who otherwise would not have picked up the habit.

"There can be both potential benefits and potential risks," said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society. "We don't want youth using these. We don't want the tobacco industry marketing these products in a way that helps sustain people in smoking."

The proposed legislation also moves the federal government one step closer to requiring tobacco manufacturers to sell cigarettes in plain packages.

"Every 14 minutes, a Canadian dies of a tobacco-related illness," Dr. Philpott said. "There is a large body of evidence to document that plain packaging is a deterrent to young people and will make them less likely to take up smoking."

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa

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