The180·The 180

Nicotine isn't tobacco, and other reasons not to hate the vape

The federal government wants to regulate e-cigarettes - saying it wants to protect young people from nicotine. Mark Tyndall, of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says making it harder to get an e-cigarette is counterproductive and would almost certainly be a setback for public health.

The federal government plans to introduce new regulations on e-cigarettes this fall, saying it wants to protect young people from nicotine addiction.

While there are few details about what will be in the new regulations, Mark Tyndall, Executive Medical Director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, warns the government against making it harder to vape. 

If we could switch everybody tomorrow, then we'd have a huge impact on people's health, almost right away.- Mark Tyndall, Executive Medical Director, BCCDC

He sees vaping as a form of harm reduction, and thinks treating e-cigarettes the same as tobacco is unnecessary and counterproductive. 

"My interest in this really spurred from all my work in HIV prevention and dealing with people with other addictions. Everybody that I follow in our clinics and in our cohort studies are dying from tobacco-related illness, they're not dying from HIV anymore. And it's fascinating how we've thought of tobacco as just in the background and it's not really an issue for people with addictions, but it is the number one issue we should be dealing with."

Tyndall believes there is confusion about just what's harmful about tobacco. While nicotine is addictive, it's one of the safer chemicals in traditional tobacco cigarettes. 

"We know the toxins in combustible tobacco that cause disease, and they're just not present in e-cigarettes. There's no reason to believe that they are anywhere near as dangerous as combustible tobacco."

Tyndall says we've associated so many diseases with nicotine addiction, we've begun to believe that it's the nicotine that's harmful. 

"We've had a massive international experiment of what nicotine does to people and there isn't a lot of hard evidence it's dangerous. Probably in the developing brain or youth, much like our debates over marijuana, it's probably not great to expose people to nicotine, but long term-nicotine exposure should be seen like long-term caffeine exposure." 

Right now, Health Canada does not permit the sale of nicotine in e-cigarettes, but it's still available in some places. Tyndall worries that the government will make it harder to buy e-cigarettes, when it should be making it very easy for people to switch over.

"It would be crazy for us to be sitting here in 20 years still waiting for the results of a study to come out so we can say "A-ha! They're not as dangerous!" and meanwhile countless thousands have died from tobacco. If tomorrow, everybody threw away their combustible tobacco and started using e-cigarettes we'd notice almost instantaneous improvements in people's health, and fairly quickly see improvements in our health care system."


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