The Current

Health Canada caught 'flat-footed' by rise of popularity of vaping among youths, expert says

We explore how Canada is addressing health concerns over vaping, as hundreds of people in the United States fall victim to serious illness that doctors fear may be related to the practice.

'The situation … calls for very thoughtful, but nonetheless forceful regulation,' says Dr. Andrew Pipe

Vaping can help people give up smoking, but they have also become popular with young people who never smoked to begin with. (Aliaksandr Barouski/Shutterstock)
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As U.S. doctors fear a spate of serious illnesses may be linked to vaping, one smoking cessation expert warns that Health Canada has been caught "flat-footed" by the popularity of e-cigarettes.

"Those of us who've been involved in tobacco control issues for decades are astonished that we now seem to have lost sight of the lessons of the past," said Dr. Andrew Pipe, a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa.

There is now a "major public health issue, of the fact that we may be spawning a new generation of nicotine addicts," Pipe told The Current's Laura Lynch.

While other jurisdictions have moved to regulate vaping products, Pipe thinks that Canada is now in a situation where it will have to play catch-up.

"I think the regulatory response, to be fair, has been somewhat flat-footed," he said. 

"The situation that's evolving calls for very thoughtful, but nonetheless forceful regulation."

In the United States, there have been more than 200 cases of lung ailments that doctors suspect may be related to vaping. Two deaths are also being investigated.

While no conclusive connection has been proven, authorities there are beginning to take action. Flavoured vaping products have been banned for six months in Michigan, while city officials in Milwaukee issued a health warning telling people to stop vaping altogether.

A chest X-ray from one of the people in the U.S. suffering from a pulmonary illness. (Intermountain Healthcare)

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

Restrictions around vaping products were put in place when the products were legalized last year, James Van Loon, director general of Health Canada's Tobacco Control Directorate, told The Current.

He said that vaping products "are a less harmful alternative to nicotine, if you switch completely from smoking, which is the leading cause of preventable death and illness in Canada."

He added that "more can be done to prevent youth uptake," and Health Canada was working to put those measures in place "as quickly as possible."

A new generation is getting hooked on nicotine, and doctors say there are alarming similarities between the past popularity of cigarettes and the current vaping trend. 4:18

He said that Health Canada is "carefully monitoring" the situation in the U.S. and "actively" looking for similar cases in Canada, using "all of our information sources for possible cases."

Those sources include "federally accessible databases like consumer complaints about vaping products or drug adverse reaction reports," he said.

He also said chief medical officers across the country are being asked to watch for symptoms, and to ask "people about their vaping history if they're coming in with any kind of a respiratory illness."

He urged people who "are using vaping products or have used them in the past, [to] just monitor yourself carefully." 

"If you end up with difficulty breathing or severe illness … make sure that you talk to your doctor about what that is." 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Alison Masemann.

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