In the 15 years since e-cigarettes hit the market, the conventional wisdom on vaping — which was first seen as a less-harmful alternative to smoking — has evolved as the sometimes-fatal health hazards of the habit have been made public. Recent polling from Angus Reid indicates that 62 percent of Canadians now feel that vaping does more harm than good, up from 35 percent at the same time last year, before an outbreak of vaping illness linked to chemical additives. The same study shows that 17 percent of parents with children under 19 are aware of their children vaping, and 92 per cent of these parents say they consider it harmful. In December, Health Canada took measures to restrict the advertising of vaping products with a goal of curbing their usage among young people. The Sixth Estate’s Spotlight with host David Akin assembled a panel of experts and stakeholders to delve into the issues that surround vaping.
Dr. John Oyston, of the physician-led program Quit by Vaping, which uses vaping to maximize the probability of quitting smoking, said that because vaping does not involve tobacco — even though it is often labelled as a tobacco product — and because it doesn’t involve combusting materials that are then inhaled, it can provide a safer delivery of nicotine.
“Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, funded by a medical organization, has proved that you are 83 percent more likely to quit smoking if you use e-cigarettes with support than if you use available nicotine replacement therapy with support,” said Oyston.
Oyston said that even those who switch to vaping over the long term are still less exposed to harm than cigarette smoking, and vaping has the added benefit of being able to control the nicotine concentration, so that users can wean themselves off of the nicotine over time.
Marino Francispillai, program manager for school and community mental health and wellness with Ottawa Public Health, said that there has been an acceleration of vaping among youth, which is a concern for health officials.
“The issue here is that this is a product that still has a lot of unknowns,” said Francispillai. “We still don’t have clear-cut [data that shows] yes, there’s no harm related to this, or the harm is really reduced, and we’ve been seeing severe lung illnesses.”
Francispillai noted that while retail vape products that come in pods have a fixed content, which Ontario may be looking at capping the nicotine content of, there are a lot of unknowns with products that come from less reputable sources.
Sherwin Edwards, president of VapSelect, which manufactures vape products, started off by clarifying that the tobacco industry did not develop the vape industry and has stood in the way of its development.
“On the federal level, they’re getting it right,” said Edwards of the regulatory environment. “Where we have concerns, it’s the provinces. Nova Scotia recently announced a flavour ban. There is a very important component in this conversation, which is the estimated one million Canadians who have transitioned away from tobacco to use vaping for their nicotine needs, and they use flavours and a variety of nicotine levels, and they need to be part of the discussion.”
Edwards said that flavour bans will affect harm reduction, and would essentially hand the industry over to Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. He also clarified that the problems in the United States with respiratory issues are related to cartridges containing THC and vitamin E acetate and not nicotine.
Dr. Amy Porath, director of research with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, said that vaping can still harm youth regardless of whether vapes contain nicotine or cannabis, and that includes cognitive impairment with regular cannabis use.
“What we heard from youth is that they’re not having good, honest, non-judgmental conversations with the youth-allies in their lives — parents, educators, guidance counsellors, healthcare practitioners,” said Porath. “We also heard from those youth allies that they don’t know how to start the conversation, as cannabis is a new territory as it moves from an illicit to a legal substance.”
Porath added that kids are curious, and they will want to talk about substance use without necessarily wanting to go out and do it.
Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs with Imperial Tobacco Canada, said that the industry is looking to bring less harmful alternatives to tobacco to the market now that the regulatory framework has been established in Canada.
“We know that where smokers go is to convenience stores,” said Gagnon. “We believe the ability for them to choose that vaping product alternative is to have it available for them there.”
Gagnon added that fear-mongering in the media has pushed the view that vaping is more harmful than smoking when Public Health England has proven that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes, and that misinformation around flavours and capping nicotine content could lead consumers to either the black market, or to simply return to cigarettes. He added that Canada requires a regulatory environment that discourages use by children while still serving adult users.