Canada's biggest tobacco company is hoping the federal government's upcoming legislation to regulate e-cigarettes and vaping products could usher its entry into the booming $235-million market.
"There's no doubt that when that's introduced, we will look at what these are, see how we can potentially be in the market in Canada," Eric Gagnon, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco Canada, told the fifth estate.
"The objective would be to provide consumers with a different, less harmful product that they could choose and hopefully move away from the cigarette industry."
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When the fifth estate's Mark Kelley questioned why Imperial Tobacco would want to sell a product that would compete with cigarettes, the primary source of its profits, Gagnon said: "It's the same reason why Coke has Diet Coke and they have water.
"So that means with that thinking, there's no way that Coke could sell water ... there's no way McDonald's could sell a salad. Why aren't we allowed to sell a less harmful product?"
Last month, the federal government announced it would introduce amendments to the Tobacco Act to create a legislative framework to regulate e-cigarettes and vaping products.
The changes are expected to come this fall and will seek to balance protecting minors from developing a nicotine addiction with helping adult smokers use the devices to quit cigarettes or use nicotine in a less harmful way, according to the announcement.
The fifth estate requested an interview with Health Minister Jane Philpott but was told she was not available.
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The sale of e-cigarettes containing nicotine is not currently approved by Health Canada and is deemed illegal, although these products are easily available across the country. The new rules would regulate an industry worth an estimated $235 million annually, according to the Canadian Vaping Association.
Gagnon added that he hoped any new rules would also allow the company to communicate more effectively with consumers.
He told the fifth estate that it would help to ensure adult smokers see the potential health benefits of e-cigarette and vaping products and understand the differences between those products and cigarettes.
"If you want consumers to start using those products, they have to be aware of them," said Gagnon.
"So if you limit the communication too much as a tobacco product then it becomes very difficult for consumers to be made aware of the potential benefits."
Under the Tobacco Act, most kinds of tobacco advertising in Canada are prohibited.
'Accept that responsibility'
In the United Kingdom, Imperial Tobacco's parent company, British American Tobacco (BAT), has jumped on the e-cigarette and vapour products bandwagon.
BAT was the first tobacco company to introduce an e-cigarette into the U.K. market, launching it in 2013. It was also the first cigarette company to get a medicinal licence in the U.K. for a smoking cessation device called the Voke.
The company's scientific director, David O'Reilly, told Kelley that BAT's commitment to these products stems from the devastating impact smoking has had on public health.
"We accept that responsibility because we sell cigarettes today," he said.
"The use of those cigarettes causes death and disease. That's why we're investing heavily in the research and development of safer tobacco and nicotine alternatives."
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The World Health Organization estimates about one billion people around the world continue to smoke. In Canada, tobacco use kills around 37,000 people annually, according to Health Canada.
O'Reilly said he strongly believes "there's momentum behind tobacco harm reduction," telling the fifth estate: "If we are part of the problem, as people see it, then we should be part of the solution."
But some experts in tobacco control aren't buying BAT's zeal for harm reduction.
David Hammond, an associate professor of applied public health at the University of Waterloo, served as an expert witness on behalf of governments being sued by tobacco companies over health regulations. He remains skeptical of any talk of harm reduction by a tobacco company.
"I think if they were really interested in harm reduction, they'd stop selling cigarettes. I mean, this is a company that continues to sue governments for putting health warnings on packages, including in Canada."
Right now, most of the recent regulation on e-cigarettes in Canada has happened on the provincial level. It varies widely, from very restrictive in Quebec to none at all in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Public health officials across the country are waiting to see how the federal government will shape new regulations on e-cigarettes and vaping products and what role tobacco companies might play.
Peter Donnelly, president of Public Health Ontario, is unconvinced that any tobacco company product could have a public health benefit.
"I think one should be extremely cautious about any claim that's made by people who have a vested interest in people continuing to smoke because that's where their profits come from," he told the fifth estate's Kelley.
"There is emerging evidence that young people like using it, that young people who use [e-cigarettes] are more likely to go on and smoke, and that's a tragedy."
For his part, Imperial Tobacco's Gagnon told the fifth estate he's in favour of regulations that protect minors.
"I have two kids. I don't want my kids to smoke. We support reasonable and evidence-based regulation, especially the ones aimed at keeping tobacco products out of the hands of kids."
But for others in public health, concerns over the involvement of big tobacco companies are a distraction.
'Public health emergency'
Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive medical director of the BC Centre for Disease Control, calls smoking a public health emergency. In his view, the most marginalized in society are the most negatively affected by smoking and for them, current approaches to quitting don't work.
"People can say that our programs are working slowly. But it hasn't really impacted people with mental illness and the poor," he said.
"In my clinical practice, the people who have mental illness smoke cigarettes and we're doing nothing to help them. And they really deserve something more than a call-to-quit line."
He told the fifth estate he doesn't want to see the harm reduction potential of e-cigarettes ignored because Big Tobacco companies want to get involved.
"If we're going to stop this, because Big Tobacco's behind it or because our kids might get addicted to nicotine, that is not where the attention should be right now. We have a public health emergency and we have something that can help that and we need to act."