Skip to main content

The jig is up for the e-cigarette industry: Helping adults quit smoking isn’t its only profit plan and likely never was. The past month has seen a blizzard of reports exposing how the design and marketing of nicotine vaping products has targeted minors. The industry has been flouting laws as it pushed its understudied, addictive product for years, hooking a new generation of children on nicotine.

Officially, federal law in Canada has banned the marketing of e-cigarettes to young people since they were legalized in May, 2018. Companies are prevented from engaging in “lifestyle advertising” that frames vaping as rebellious or cool. They’re also not supposed to promote flavours that could appeal to minors, such as those that taste like candy, dessert or soft drinks. As The Globe and Mail reported earlier this month, both restrictions have been openly ignored.

Flavoured products and ads were needed to reach adult smokers who wanted to quit, the vaping industry argued, after a parliamentary committee suggested banning both entirely in 2015. It’s inexplicable why the federal government fell for that line, allowing both when it passed the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act in 2018. Or maybe it’s not surprising at all. Big Vape isn’t just employing lessons learned by Big Tobacco; it’s got its muscle, too. Canada’s Vype, owned by Imperial Tobacco, and the United Kingdom’s Nicocigs, owned by Philip Morris, are just two of the brands launched or bought by tobacco companies with decades of government-lobbying experience.

It’s good manners for companies that sell intoxicants to pitch themselves as socially responsible, but advising prudence doesn’t make any business sense. Last year, British researchers calculated that alcohol companies would lose as much as £13-billion ($22-billion) in profits if partiers stuck to the number of drinks recommended by health authorities. While alcohol executives in Britain claim to promote moderation, industry pushback against a minimum-pricing scheme was so intense that former prime minister David Cameron shelved the plan in 2013, despite widespread support from police and health-care providers. Scotland has since become the first country in the world to pass a minimum-pricing law, and alcohol-related deaths have fallen a dramatic 21 per cent.

No smart capitalist would launch a product aimed solely at a diminishing market, yet in positioning vaping as a smoking-cessation aid, that’s exactly what the e-cigarette industry did. If youthful social-media advertising doesn’t reveal that pitch as a pretense, there’s more specific evidence. Take a 2015 interview with an engineer working to develop the incredibly popular Juul vape. “We don’t think a lot about addiction here because we’re not trying to design a cessation product at all. ... Anything about health is not on our mind,” he said, in an interview with The Verge, quoted last weekend by The New York Times.

Owned in part by the tobacco giant Altria, which also owns Marlboro, Juul controls 75 per cent of the U.S. market. It’s also currently facing multiple lawsuits, brought by parents and state-level governments, and is under investigation by a slew of federal agencies. The Times reports that Juul might not receive continued clearance from the Food and Drug Administration.

But the damage has already been done. In both Canada and the United States, teenage vape use is rising. Both countries have also seen a rise in vaping-related lung illnesses. Health authorities think many are linked to black-market products that authorized brands don’t sell, but youth-targeted marketing may have driven minors to retailers with less interest in obeying age laws.

Now, after decades of declining tobacco use, we’re again fighting the ravages of nicotine addiction. Juul has promised to drop most flavours and invest in ID-checking technology. Canadian principals have implemented buy-back plans and taken the doors off of washroom stalls so teens can’t vape at school. Concerned about the unknown effects of vaping on the developing teenage brain, British Columbia has announced plans to limit flavours and nicotine, and become the first province to have a vaping-specific tax.

Health Canada spent the summer raiding specialty vape shops and seizing non-compliant products, but is also considering allowing vape products to be openly advertised as healthier than cigarettes. The evidence for that better come from reliable, independent medical researchers – not an industry that has shown its disdain for public health, yet again.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe