The majority of convenience stores and vape outlets refused to sell e-cigarettes to young people who tried to buy them during a four-month period last year, a draft report for Health Canada has found.
The study was undertaken to test how easy it was for young people, between 15 and 17, to purchase e-cigarettes with nicotine.
From July to October 2015, teens were sent into more than 4,000 stores across the country to try to purchase e-cigarettes, which heat liquid to create a vapour that often contains nicotine and flavourings.
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The teens were sent to convenience stores, gas stations and vape outlets that specialize in e-cigarettes. On average, they were turned away 66.5 per cent of the time.
'Our government's plan to legalize and regulate marijuana will also include provisions to limit access. Studies that can show effective means of limiting access of restricted products to youth will be valuable to the task force as they provide our government with expert advice on how the legalization process should take place.' - Jane Philpott, Canada's health minister
The numbers were much higher in Prince Edward Island, where teens were refused e-cigarettes 91.5 per cent of the time. New Brunswick, Manitoba, and British Columbia ranked closely behind.
Quebec, where the sale of e-cigarettes to minors is banned, scored the lowest, with stores in Montreal turning teens away just 43.3 per cent of the time.
E-cigarettes with nicotine have not been approved for sale by Health Canada, but are not illegal and are widely available. And while many provinces have passed legislation to regulate them, including prohibiting their sale to minors, some have no rules at all.
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Alex Scholten, president of the Canadian Convenience Stores Association, said he would like the numbers to be higher, but says the problem is the patchwork of provincial rules across the country, with no federal regulations.
"I have retailers calling me on a daily basis asking what are the laws? What are my responsibilities?," Scholten told CBC.
He points to a previous study conducted by Health Canada in 2014 that only looked at convenience stores. It showed minors were turned away 90.2 per cent of the time when asking for e-cigarettes and 84.8 per cent of the time when asking for tobacco products.
Tobacco retailers seeing shift
Scholten said the lack of Health Canada approval means members of his association don't sell the products — but other other stores do, frustrating convenience store owners who are seeing consumers' habits change.
"Our retailers have seen tobacco sales go down in recent years with more and more consumers buying vapour cigarettes, or electronic cigarettes. So it has changed how products are being purchased."
Scholten pointed to the United States, where he said sales of e-cigarettes have doubled every year over a four-year period.
"So with it being a patchwork of regulation at best without federal leadership on this, it's really a huge void and something that I think is a grave concern to our retail members and but should also be of grave concern to Canadians, because it really is the wild west in terms of a product," Scholten said.
Health Minister Jane Philpott's office said on Friday that a final report on this issue will be released by Health Canada in a few weeks.
In the meantime, the minister said in a statement, "Health Canada is actively reviewing health and safety data and scientific studies on vaping products, including e-cigarettes. My department officials and I have had discussions regarding e-cigarette regulations, and I can update you further as we move forward on this file."
Philpott added that this study, and the limits it found for teenagers, will be used for another government initiative.
"Our government's plan to legalize and regulate marijuana will also include provisions to limit access," wrote Philpott. "Studies that can show effective means of limiting access of restricted products to youth will be valuable to the task force as they provide our government with expert advice on how the legalization process should take place."
Scholten said his members are not lobbying to sell marijuana when it's expected to become legal in 2017.
He said for now, his association would just like to see the rules for electronic cigarettes applied evenly across the country.