There is one point on which there is unanimous, adamant agreement: Young people should not be vaping. Just as they should not be smoking.
It’s abundantly clear as well that companies manufacturing and selling vaping products have been targeting teenagers with social-media promotions, kid-friendly fruity flavours, USB-sized cartridges, mass advertising campaigns and low-priced starter kits.
There are laws to prevent this, but many companies have and continue to flout the rules and market to young people, as was demonstrated in a Globe and Mail investigation by health reporter Carly Weeks, published on Saturday.
So what are we going to do about it?
First, we have to acknowledge that Canadian health officials, federally and provincially, have been slow to act. For almost a decade, there was no regulation, and vaping companies took advantage. That’s capitalism.
The federal Tobacco and Vaping Products Act was enacted only in May, 2018, and provincial regulation has just begun, with B.C. leading the way. The federal legislation is decent, at least on paper.
Federal laws prohibit the sale of vaping products to teens, products that appeal to young people such as candy-flavoured liquids, ban lifestyle advertising and the use of testimonials.
B.C.’s rules could be even more impactful, as they aim to reduce access to flavoured products, regulate nicotine content and tax vaping products. But laws need to be enforced.
Before we start criticizing Health Canada and its provincial counterparts for not doing so, we have to recognize that their resources are limited in the face of a tsunami of sophisticated marketing. Big Tobacco is legendary for its marketing prowess, but this is Marlboro Man on steroids.
Putting the kibosh on the wall-to-wall ads in Vancouver Skytrain stations and Union Station in Toronto should be easy enough. But how do you regulate the use of Instagram influencers and mobile ads that originate in foreign countries? How do you enforce age-verification rules for online purchases?
Canadian health officials, to their credit, have not (like some U.S. jurisdictions) called for a ban on the sale of vaping products. Prohibition doesn’t work.
Sales of vaping products (like tobacco products) to those under the age of 18 or 19 (depending on the province) are already prohibited but e-cigarettes and vape pens are clearly easy to come by for young people.
It’s a reminder of the limitations of supply-side regulation. After decades of cracking down relentlessly on youth smoking, 15 per cent of young people still smoke. Canada’s goal of virtually eliminating smoking by 2035 is going to be difficult.
We also need to focus on the demand-side of the equation, with taxation and better health education. We don’t need Reefer Madness-like warnings about vaping. Young people are sophisticated enough to understand that vaping is safer than smoking, but that does not mean it is harmless.
In our zeal to regulate vaping, we also have to be wary of the unintended consequences, notably pushing people, young and old, back to cigarettes.
Vaping should not be regulated exactly like smoking because they are different. Advertising we can live without. Good riddance.
Canadian law allows flavoured vaping products (it doesn’t for tobacco) as a way of making them more attractive to smokers. Banning flavours outright would not be the end of the world, but it could push vapers to the black market. Then problems arise such as EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury), which is associated with black-market THC liquids and has led to 42 deaths and more than 2,000 cases in the United States.
The harm-reduction approach should not only continue but be expanded. For example, why don’t we allow coupons for low-cost (or even free) vaping products in cigarette packs to promote the safer alternative?
Public Health England has stated that vaping is 95 per cent safer than smoking combustible tobacco and aggressively urged smokers to switch. At the same time, it has strictly regulated advertising and packaging of vaping products, and limited their nicotine content, but has not banned flavours, nor taxed them like tobacco.
Interestingly, England does not have the youth vaping epidemic that we see in the United States and Canada. Like all public-health measures, regulation of vaping is about getting the balance right: Urging smokers to switch to vaping, while discouraging young people from taking up vaping (or smoking).
We can do both. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.