Cross Country Checkup

E-cigarette ban would create a vaping black market: Public health expert

Regardless of vaping’s potential dangers, banning e-cigarettes isn’t a solution, says public health professor David Hammond. He argues that instead, there needs to be tougher regulations on the product and how it's marketed.

As illnesses linked to vaping spread in the U.S., many are calling on Canada to tighten e-cigarette laws

U.S. health officials say they have linked a third death and up to 450 cases of serious lung illness to the use of vaping products. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

A public health professor is warning a ban on e-cigarettes in Canada could create a black market for the product, and suggests stricter regulations are a better way to curb the surge in popularity of vaping amongst youth.

"We can't wish them away... to the extent that we have many, many Canadians using these products, I don't think pushing those folks outside the legal market makes sense," said David Hammond, a University of Waterloo professor whose research on chronic disease has recently focused on vaping.

"But, there is a lot to be done in terms of how easy it is to access these products," added Hammond. 

In recent weeks, at least three deaths and hundreds of cases of lung illnesses in the U.S., believed to be linked to vaping, lead the state of Michigan to ban flavoured vaping products. 

There's no reason for non-smokers to be using these products because they will increase health risks.- David Hammond

Several American cities, such as San Francisco, have also restricted or banned sales of e-cigarettes.

Some health advocates, including the Canadian Pediatric Society, want a vaping ban in Canada, but Hammond believes that isn't "feasible." 

Instead, he's calling for tougher laws on all aspects of vaping, from packaging to marketing.

"[Canada] hasn't actually implemented really basic important aspects of things like telling consumers these might be harmful, in terms of health warnings," he said. "That's a problem."

David Hammond, a professor at the University of Waterloo and an expert on tobacco control policy, said the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy needs a re-think in a changing nicotine market. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Confusion about health impacts

Health Canada says there have been no reported cases of lung illness in Canada, but issued a statement this week urging those who vape to be cautious and warning young people, pregnant women and non-smokers not to vape at all.

E-cigarettes were legalized in Canada in 2018, popularized as useful tool in lowering one's cigarette or cannabis use.

Researchers have expressed concerns about potential damage e-cigarettes can cause to the lungs and heart, as well as the risk of burns and seizures.  However, Hammond says a patchwork of laws in Canada, particularly around the marketing of vaping products to the public, have contributed to confusion about the health impacts of e-cigarettes.

"They're almost certainly likely to be harmful but much less harmful than smoking," said Hammond. 

"There's no reason for non-smokers to be using these products because they will increase health risks."

Hammond's research suggests vaping rates among Canadian teenagers have shot up since 2018. Teen cigarette smoking also appears to be on the rise for the first time in 30 years.

Hammond says health warnings on vaping products should be mandatory, and believes Health Canada should force manufacturers to list vape juice ingredients. The professor does acknowledge the challenges in regulating the vaping industry, likening it to "grabbing the tiger by the tail," because it's changing so rapidly.

"The products we have on the market today are fundamentally different than the ones we had in Canada two years ago," said Hammond, adding that new vape devices can now deliver as much nicotine as conventional cigarettes.

Vaping retailer also opposed to ban

An Ontario-based retailer of vapes and vaping accessories agrees that a ban won't keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of teenagers.

"I am very confident that underground or off-grid sales of products would remain," said David Howard, owner of Canada Vapes in London, Ont.

"It would also reduce the ability for current smokers to be able to use product as an alternative [to cigarettes]."

Howard launched his vaping operation in 2010, after his personal use of e-cigarettes helped him kick his 20-year smoking habit. 

Dave “Howie” Howard, owns Canada Vapes in London, Ont., a company he launched in 2010. He argues that vaping is a healthy alternative to cigarette-smoking. (Submitted by David Howard)

Stricter advertising regulations

Despite his belief that e-cigarettes benefit smokers, Howard welcomes the idea of stricter vaping regulations. He suggests the increase in youth vaping can be blamed on major commercial tobacco companies, many of which now own e-cigarette companies.

"You've seen the tobacco companies in Canada starting to get into the vaping space, and they definitely have more power than 'mom-and-pop shop' people. Long-term, that is a concern — they have access to basically every variety store and every single gas station across Canada," he said.

Hammond agrees that marketing has played a significant role in the rising popularity of vaping.

"By advertising them in the corner stores next to the candy and Slurpee machine... with exploding strawberries and mangoes, they make it look fun and tasty," said Hammond.

Howard rejects any suggestion that the vaping industry targets youth with fruit or candy flavouring, saying it's adults who want different flavoured e-liquids. 

E-Liquids, which are used for vaping in electronic cigarettes, are regularly marketed with bright colours. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ordered e-cigarette product makers to devise a plan to keep their devices away from minors, declaring use by teens has reached an "epidemic proportion". (Getty Images)

"If you only had 'no flavour' e-liquid, it would reduce the effectiveness of the product for all current smokers looking to transition to vaping," he said.

Conversely, Hammond expressed concerns around the allure of vaping to teenagers.

"We have to find a way of getting these in the hands of adult smokers who can't quit other ways, but protect kids and change the perceptions of these things as a fun, modern, sleek way of taking your drugs," he said.

As for current illnesses linked to lung disease sweeping across the U.S., Howard maintains he's had no health complaints from Canada Vapes clients.

"We've personally had tens of thousands of customers, and we have had zero customers ever come back. In my opinion, something significant has changed within some small subset of [e-cigarette] manufacturing," said Howard.

"What that is, I don't know."

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