Dr. Adam Kassam is a Toronto-based physician who writes about health care, public policy and international affairs.
Last week’s announcement by Ontario’s Health Ministry – that as of the new year, vaping advertisements in convenience stores and gas stations will be banned – is a crucial first step in curbing the growing public-health crisis of e-cigarette use. And while Health Minister Christine Elliott has rightly received widespread praise for supporting this necessary regulatory amendment to the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, it comes after a year of relentless lobbying of her ministry by science-driven organizations including the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society and Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco.
By bolstering the existing framework for regulation of vapour products, Ontario finally joins seven other provinces that have already implemented stricter rules around the sale and promotion of these materials. Alberta and Saskatchewan remain the only provincial regions without any legislation, while Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories have some variation of proposed or pending bills in their legislatures.
The reasons why our society is dealing with a new smoking epidemic after decades of declining cigarette use are multifactorial. Most experts agree, however, that the role of advertising, combined with an expansion of synthetic flavours and lenient rules around the availability of these products, have helped make them so ubiquitous.
The numbers don’t lie. Recent reports indicate that nearly 15 per cent of Canadians have tried vaping, with the largest proportion of new users being adolescents, whose rates of e-cigarette usage have increased over the past five years. Most alarming was a study from the University of Waterloo that found a 74-per-cent increase in vaping among Canadian youth between 16 and 19 years old in just one calendar year, from 2017 to 2018 – as well as a trend toward occasional users becoming frequent ones.
That the global vaping phenomenon has been backed by Big Tobacco should come as no surprise, either. Altria, the largest cigarette maker in the United States, has a 35-per-cent stake in Juul, one of the most recognizable e-cigarette brands. And while the industry line is to declare vapour products to be a healthier alternative that helps people stop smoking, the evidence backing these claims is still inconclusive. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is among those reporting that a mysterious new lung injury is believed to be linked to vaping.
Another major threat with these products is their potential to create a new generation of smokers who would have otherwise likely shunned this behaviour. Youth vaping rates are only growing, and highly addictive nicotine content in e-cigarettes is soaring, too – a strategy from the same playbook that made regular cigarettes so popular a generation ago. Our governments and institutions must not allow history to repeat itself.
This is where provincial entities have an opportunity to show real leadership, especially since services around health, public health and other services mainly interface with provinces, rather than Ottawa. Building on her announcement, Ms. Elliott should impose limits on the types of flavours being produced and marketed, restricting the locations where these products can be sold and considering raising the age requirements for e-cigarette purchase to ensure responsible purchasing of a product that we still don’t know enough about. As a political bonus, the Ontario government would attract broad support from across party lines, offering Premier Doug Ford the opportunity to claim a significant victory that he desperately needs.
It also gives him the chance to call on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to engage in a collaborative approach to this problem. Federal support for finding solutions to this growing challenge is essential, and Health Canada has earned the criticism it has received for not acting swiftly enough to avoid the insidious creep of e-cigarettes into our neighbourhoods and communities.
On the heels of a divisive election that revealed deep divisions across the country, the calls to address our political partisanship are growing louder. Canadians have grown weary of the negativity, and now need our elected leaders to help heal these fractures. And what better way to bring the country together than by creating useful, important and meaningful policies that are truly for the people and our children?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.