Vaping advocates are fighting for no new taxes. Big tobacco helps them do that
Alberta mulling its tobacco future as new battle over Canada's vaping rules is waged
In June 2021, the Calgary Herald published an opinion piece that criticized the provincial government for, in the views of the authors, failing to deliver on promised revisions to Alberta's laws around vaping.
"A cascade of inaction characterizes Alberta's approach to preventing young people from vaping and becoming smokers — just when Alberta should act," the piece states, argued at the time by an associate professor at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine, along with two medical students.
A week later, the Canadian vaping advocacy group Rights4Vapers, which bills itself as an informal collection of committed volunteers, pushed back.
"Rather than unilaterally condemning vaping, let's consider the potential for vapour products as a tool for tobacco harm-reduction," reads the blog from Rights4Vapers, unattributed to any author. "Thousands of smokers in Alberta have [made] the choice to vape."
Rights4Vapers is no stranger when it comes to pushing back against what it says is misinformation against vaping, frequently issuing press releases to do so.
Last summer, the group took its message to the road, holding a Canadian tour to "bring the truth" about vaping. At these stops, the group pushed back against regulation and solicited signatures from bystanders who said vaping had got them off cigarettes.
The group also promoted a petition to "save flavours." Health Canada has said flavours are highly appealing to youth, who are "especially susceptible" to the negative effects of nicotine. Advocates argue adults also enjoy flavoured vapes and removing them from the market could discourage some from making the switch.
Proponents of vaping say these products help those addicted by delivering nicotine with fewer toxins than those that come from smoking cigarettes.
They argue that more taxes or regulations make vaping less accessible and encourage a return to smoking cigarettes, and that tobacco companies naturally are diversifying into alternative products given their fiduciary duty to shareholders. A balance needs to be struck, they say, between protecting youth and keeping vapes available for adults.
Though Health Canada agrees vaping is less harmful than smoking, research is less than definitive about its long-term impacts, especially among youth.
Among youth who had vaped within 30 days prior to a Statistics Canada survey, 61 per cent said they had never tried a tobacco cigarette in their life, suggesting the majority of youth aren't using vaping devices to reduce or quit smoking.
Health officials have also raised concerns about the implications of a new generation becoming addicted to nicotine, a highly addictive substance, which Health Canada says can lead to dependence, affect memory and concentration and could alter teenage brain development.
"Any time you repeatedly inhale chemicals into your lungs, whether it's air pollution or vapour, that's going to be a concern," said David Hammond, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo who researches vaping in youth.
"Unfortunately, it'd be 10 or 20 years before enough people are using these things for enough time that we can really see whether there are respiratory issues or cardiovascular issues."
Vaping is relatively unpopular among adults aged 25 or older, with four per cent of that group reporting having vaped within 30 days of a 2021 Statistics Canada study, compared with 13 per cent of those aged 15 to 19, and 17 per cent of those aged 20 to 24.
Connections to industry
Though Rights4Vapers identifies itself as a "informal collection of committed volunteers" guided by "unpaid academic advisors," the group's listed team has myriad connections to industry and its related funding.
On its website, Rights4Vapers lists Michael Landl, the director of the World Vapers' Alliance (WVA), as being among their supporters.
In January, the Daily Beast reported that British American Tobacco (BAT) had played a central role in directing and funding the WVA. A spokesperson with BAT told CBC News it supports organizations that "contribute to the debate on issues that are important to our consumers, in particular tobacco harm reduction."
The activities of the WVA also sound strikingly similar to recent efforts from Rights4Vapers — a multi-city tour with a large bus, gathering pro-vaping testimonials intended to influence policymakers to implement pro-vaping policies.
In messages sent via Twitter, Landl with the WVA told CBC News the timing of the two campaigns "was a coincidence," and said his organization did not provide guidance on that campaign and has not provided financial support to Rights4Vapors.
He said the WVA and Rights4Vapers first started to collaborate in 2020, at which point Rights4Vapers became a member of the WVA.
Rights4Vapers' website lists a number of other supporters, including Dr. Ian Irvine, a professor of economics at Concordia University.
His views on taxes on vaping products were published by the Globe and Mail in May 2021, just about a month after he disclosed he had been working under a grant from the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, a group solely funded by Philip Morris International, one of the world's largest tobacco companies. Irvine wrote that the foundation "had no control over the work process or the report," but he was unable to provide additional comment to CBC News by publication time.
Rights4Vapers' other listed members and supporters include Dr. Gopal Bhatnagar, a cardiovascular surgeon who is also the owner of 180 Smoke, a popular chain of vaping shops, and Dr. John Oyston, a retired anesthesiologist who has stated on his blog that he has been paid for work he has done for tobacco and vaping companies.
On his blog, Oyston posted that he needed the funding from the tobacco industry or vaping organizations to help "tell the truth to Canadian smokers, the people whose very lives depend on being informed about the availability of much less dangerous sources of the nicotine they are dependent on."
"I said what I sincerely believed, but the work that I did in putting together that argument on paper was paid for by the Canadian Vaping Association," he said in an interview.
Christopher Lalonde, a professor of psychology at the University of Victoria, is also listed as a supporter. He declined an interview request with CBC News, citing its previous coverage around vaping.
Rights4Vapers also has registered with Elections Canada as a third-party. Its financial agent is listed as Michael Meathrel, president of Dvine Laboratories, which produces e-liquid. Meathrel was also chairman of the Vaping Industry Trade Association in 2021.
Funding from Dvine Laboratories
The group's main spokesperson is Maria Papaioannoy, owner of a Ontario-based vaping store. Papaioannoy responded to an interview request sent through the Rights4Vapers Facebook page.
Papaioannoy, an ex-smoker, considers herself the founder of Rights4Vapers. She said her advocacy efforts started in Ontario in 2014, when then-premier Kathleen Wynne proposed a crackdown on flavoured products in vape shops.
"Historically, people who smoke don't feel that they have a voice," she said. "So there is that other thing as giving someone the ability to say you're not a smoker … you have made a conscious decision to do better."
In its early days, then known as the Vapor Advocates of Ontario, the group raised $23,170 via a GoFundMe campaign. Papaioannoy said her other support typically comes from vape shop owners and manufacturers in Canada.
Papaioannoy said she isn't paid for her work, and said the group does not have paid members. She said the group does not work with a public relations firm.
But the group's biggest funder, Papaioannoy said, is Dvine Laboratories. It contributed around $70,000 for the entire tour last summer, paying for gas, a videographer, printing materials and other tour necessities, she said.
The connections and the funding from industry haven't changed Papaioannoy's view of the goals of Rights4Vapers to help people transition off cigarettes.
"The very thought that we want kids to vape is disgusting. It's insulting, and it's defamatory to the character of who I am," she said.
To some, it's deja vu
All of this rings a bell for those who are pushing for more regulations on vaping products.
Thirty-one years ago, the Washington Post filed a report on the fight heating up over "smokers' rights in Canada." As part of that story, the Post quoted the acting president of the Smokers' Freedom Society.
"We've reached a point where the government is trying to impose a way of life on the citizens," Jean Clavel was quoted as saying, pushing back against recent tax increases on the price of cigarettes. "This is a tax on the lifestyle of people. The government is trying to control people's lives, and we will oppose that."
The Smokers' Freedom Society no longer exists. Though it purported to be a grassroots organization fighting for the rights of cigarette smokers, it was, in fact, created and funded by the tobacco industry, the Montreal Gazette reported in 1996.
In his 1996 book Smoke & Mirrors: The Canadian Tobacco War, Rob Cunningham wrote that the use of front groups like the Smokers' Freedom Society is a typical tobacco industry tactic around the world.
"If one digs deep enough into a pro-tobacco organization, a link to the industry will almost always be found," he wrote.
When asked if Rights4Vapers was a front group, Papaioannoy said she made the effort to connect with groups she felt were simpatico with her point of view.
"The best way to minimize passion is by saying it's tobacco, or it's this, or they're puppets," she said. "Do you know how insulting that is?
"I care about this more than anything in this world."
Canada smoking rates
Since the 1990s, smoking rates among Canadians have greatly declined, from 31 per cent in 1990 to 15.1 per cent in 2017. In Alberta, it declined from 26 per cent in 1999 to 18.9 per cent in 2017.
A decade ago, Alberta renewed a 10-year tobacco reduction strategy. But that 2012 renewal predated the rise in vaping and thus did not anticipate its impact on the market.
This year, it's again time to renew that strategy. The province says it's working on it, and promises it will include efforts to reduce the amount of youth vaping.
It has also introduced the Tobacco, Smoking and Vaping Reduction Act, which restricts vaping-related advertising in convenience stores and gas stations and dictates where vaping can take place in the province, among other measures.
Meanwhile, Canada's big three tobacco companies — Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp. and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. — are in a much different state compared with their positions decades ago.
The companies are embroiled in a complex legal battle and face hundreds of billions in lawsuits from provincial governments seeking to recover smoking-related health-care costs.
That litigation has been on hold since 2019 when all three companies entered court-ordered insolvency protection and a retired Ontario judge was appointed to mediate a comprehensive settlement to all the lawsuits against them.
On bans and balance
Since the publication of his book, Cunningham watched as Canada and Alberta passed new laws and increased taxes, precipitating a decline in national smoking rates.
But Cunningham today worries about a new generation of youth becoming addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes.
"The tobacco industry has a bottomless pit of money and creativity in their marketing departments. And they have gotten a new set of teenagers addicted to products that they sell to replace those who have quit or died," Cunningham said.
"I mean, it's deja vu. And health organizations have warned governments that this was going to happen over again, just like it happened with respect to smoking."
In late June, regulators in the United States ordered the vaping company Juul to remove its products from the market, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said some of the biggest e-cigarette sellers like Juul may have played a "disproportionate" role in the rise of teen vaping.
The FDA's review process had tasked companies with proving that adult smokers who used e-cigarettes were likely to quit or reduce smoking and that teens were unlikely to get hooked on them.
Juul's products remain stocked in Canada while a proposed ban on flavoured vaping products remains on the shelf for the time being.
Rules and regulations
Of course, regulations will be of no benefit should retail locations not comply with the rules. In 2019, Health Canada said non-compliance with the rules was found at 84 per cent of specialty vaping establishments and 12 per cent of convenience stores.
That same year, a CBC Calgary investigation sent teenagers into 16 vape stores. Five of those stores sold products to kids without checking for ID.
"It clearly undermines the credibility of the vaping industry that says, 'trust us,'" said Cunningham.
"We have learned that we need to act early and rigorously, with effective regulations to prevent youth vaping. And if we do not do so, we're gonna have long-term negative implications."
An effort to push back against that trend was also established under Alberta's Tobacco, Smoking and Vaping Reduction Act, which includes promises to inspect tobacco and vaping retailers to ensure compliance.
Whatever new flavours or taxes are introduced, vaping advocates and industry will push back, arguing that vaping can help save the 100 Canadians a day who die of smoking-related illnesses. Those in favour of regulation will argue too many youth are being addicted the way things are now.
The new battle over tobacco is here.