'A desperate act': Imperial Tobacco Canada under fire for 'misinformation' ad campaign
Health policy expert calls the campaign a 'classic tobacco industry technique'
This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.
A major Canadian tobacco company has come under fire for a national advertising campaign that appears to downplay the risks of vaping and accuse the media and anti-tobacco groups of intentionally spreading false information.
Imperial Tobacco Canada, which sells the Vype brand of e-cigarette and is owned by the world's second largest tobacco company, British American Tobacco, recently launched the campaign in major Canadian newspapers, and on billboards and websites across the country.
A spokesperson for Health Canada said this week that it deemed no further action was necessary, while Quebec's Ministry of Health and Social Services says it has not yet made a decision on the advertisements.
The ads show headlines from news stories about vaping, with one of three slogans superimposed over them: "hypocrisy kills," "quit the lies" and "the dangers of misinformation."
Local outlets were also targeted, including an NBC television station in Massachusetts that reported on a school district trying to combat a rise in youth vaping, and a newspaper in San Diego that wrote about county restrictions on vaping.
Ad campaign called a 'Hail Mary'
Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta who studies health misinformation, calls the strategy used in the campaign a "classic tobacco industry technique."
"They're using the current conversation about misinformation, about fake news, in order to forward their agenda," he said. "They are implying that a story about the harms of vaping is misinformation."
Marketing expert Tony Chapman says he's surprised the company moved forward with the campaign, calling it a "Hail Mary," but says there is a deliberate strategy behind the move.
"The reason they're taking the risk is vaping was their big play … and if vaping ends up in the same penalty box as smoking, you're talking about billions of dollars of investment down the drain," he said.
"So it's a desperate act, and sometimes when you're in danger of irrelevancy, risk is better than irrelevancy."
In an interview with CBC News, a spokesperson for the company denied the ads were accusing the media of spreading misinformation, hypocrisy or lies and instead were "just a visual" aimed at regulators, adult consumers and anti-tobacco groups.
"We felt it was important to bring the other side of the story, so that both adult consumers and regulators can make informed decisions around vaping," said Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs for Imperial Tobacco Canada.
"Health Canada continues to believe that vaping — if you're a smoker, you're better off vaping."
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Health Canada said it advises Canadians to seek out information from sources that are independent and rely upon scientific evidence, such as a physician or local, provincial or federal government health officials.
"The department recognizes that vaping is a less harmful alternative to smoking for adults who have a dependence on nicotine," the statement says.
"However, it is important for Canadians to know that vaping does pose health risks and that the potential short- and long-term effects of vaping remain unknown."
Some vaping-related illnesses tied to nicotine e-cigarettes
As of Feb. 18, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recorded 2,807 hospitalizations related to vaping-related illness and 68 deaths.
There were 18 cases reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada as of Feb. 18. Six occurred in Quebec, four in Ontario, four in British Columbia, two in New Brunswick, one in Alberta and one in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Imperial Tobacco ad campaign also links to a "facts not fear" website that claims "impulsive regulations" by government and health groups "won't do anything to reduce youth vaping" and "hysteria" in media coverage over vaping-related illness has "spilled over to Canada."
It also says vaping-related illness has been linked to THC products and the harmful additive vitamin E acetate, which was identified as a "chemical of concern" by the CDC.
Yet in the U.S., 57 per cent of vaping-related illness cases reported using products that contain nicotine and 14 per cent reported exclusively using nicotine e-cigarettes. In Canada, 10 of the 18 cases reported using nicotine e-cigarette devices only.
The World Health Organization says e-cigarettes are "harmful to health and are not safe," but it is "too early to provide a clear answer on the long-term impact of using them or being exposed to them."
Researcher Timothy Caulfield says the goal of ad the campaign is to create doubt about the relevant science around vaping-associated harms, while exploiting the lack of long-term research on vaping.
"There is an international consensus that there are harms associated with vaping and there have been deaths associated with vaping," he said.
"Their broad implication is more suggesting a fraudulent agenda behind the vaping research by using the term 'misinformation.'"
Rise in youth vaping across Canada
University of Waterloo professor David Hammond, who researches youth vaping, found the number of Canadians aged 16 to 19 who reported vaping in the preceding 30 days rose from 8.4 per cent in 2017 to 14.6 per cent in 2018.
Rates of weekly use climbed from 5.2 per cent to 9.3 per cent over the same period. Hammond says his latest research is showing an even more dramatic increase.
"Most concerning, the prevalence of using e-cigarettes daily or near daily doubled between 2018 and 2019 alone," he said.
"The increase in frequent use is consistent with the emergence of high nicotine salt-based products on the Canadian market."
The maximum amount of nicotine content allowed in e-cigarettes in Canada is currently 66 milligrams per millilitre of vaping liquid, according to Health Canada. Vype products contain 57 milligrams per millilitre and Juul contains 59, while previous generations of e-cigarettes sold in Canada typically had upward of 20.
"It is deeply ironic that Imperial Tobacco would accuse others of spreading misinformation on the health risks of nicotine products," Hammond said.
"I suspect that most people will regard this public relations campaign with the same level of credibility as the tobacco industry's historical claims that nicotine isn't addictive and smoking did not cause any serious diseases."
Campaign is 'standard tobacco industry doublespeak'
Gagnon, with Imperial Tobacco Canada, said health groups such as the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation "jumped on the opportunity" of the increase in youth vaping to push an "excessive regulatory agenda in Canada."
"We have been wanting to meet with health officials across Canada. They do not want to meet with us. We would rather not do a campaign like that, if I'm honest with you," he said.
"After looking at all the regulation that was coming up and what was being said and considered, we thought that we needed to get out and to try to balance the debate and influence a little bit what people believe around vaping."
Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, says the tobacco company has decades of experience in public relations strategies to "oppose effective regulation" and mislead the public.
He described the ad campaign as "entirely hypocritical."
"Imperial Tobacco is laughing all the way to the bank with this whole new generation of young people addicted to e-cigarettes," he said.
"This has been an incredible bonanza for them and they want to protect it. They're in the business of protecting their sales. They have absolutely no credibility."
Dr. Andrew Pipe, board chair of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and a smoking cessation physician in Ottawa, called the ad campaign "standard tobacco industry doublespeak."
"It just speaks to the degree to which the tobacco industry swaggers around with almost complete impunity because of the timidity that public agencies have shown for decades in terms of dealing with this industry, which kills 47,000 Canadians a year," he said.
"The hypocrisy and duplicity of this industry is unparalleled and it continues to be expressed in these kinds of activities."
To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.