by Melissa Slauenwhite
The introduction of e-cigarettes and vapes, as a tool for adult smokers to deal with nicotine addiction, is affecting the health of young Canadians and has created an unanticipated and serious policy issue. There have been more than 2200 reports of severe lung disease linked to vaping in the United States, with similar rates coming to the attention of the Public Health Agency in Canada. In the absence of clear federal action on the alarming and growing rates of vaping and e-cigarette use among young Canadians, provinces have begun to introduce strict legislation, and should be commended for taking the first steps in tackling this problem. The federal government should follow suite, as it is not wholly clear whether this kind of system of similar, yet varying, forms of legislation across the country will be effective in decreasing vaping and e-cigarette use among Canadian youth.
The 2016-2017 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey from Statistics Canada found that the number of students across Canada who tried e-cigarettes for the first time increased from 20 to 23% between 2014 and 2016, and 11% of students reported daily use. Nova Scotia had the highest number of students who tried vaping at least once at 37%. With 22% of students reporting that they purchased e-cigarettes from a retail store, and 53% reporting that they are easy to obtain. This research points to the question of how effective the newly proposed legislation across the country will be at combatting these alarming facts.
Like many provinces, Nova Scotia has seen a sharp decline in youth smoking rates, but the rising popularity of vaping products is threatening to reverse this trend. Young people in Nova Scotia seem unaware of the potentially harmful effects associated with vaping, as 38% believe there is little to no harm associated with e-cigarette use. Nova Scotia was the first province to pass legislation banning the sale of flavoured e-cigarettes in a landmark decision that sets a new precedent for health policy across Canada. The ban is set to take effect on April 1, 2020, and the province hopes the new regulations will help curb vaping and e-cigarette use among youth.
The legislation in Nova Scotia comes at a time when many provinces are trying to increase their regulations in the absence of strict federal policy on this issue. Prince Edward Island and British Columbia are both working on legislation that will restrict the sale of e-cigarettes to specialty shops, and BC also wants to introduce plain packaging for vaping products and caps on nicotine-levels. Other provinces, like Ontario, recently announced they are considering moving in the same direction, and Saskatchewan has plans to ban the promotion and use of vaping products near schools and places young people can access. Clearly, the concern for young people and the adverse health effects of vaping is a policy priority across provinces. However, with a lack of uniform federal policy, provinces adopting different approaches may not experience meaningful decreases in youth vaping behaviour.
Nonetheless, the outright ban on flavoured vaping products by Nova Scotia has been the most radical policy choice, as it is still unknown to what extent vaping is harmful to health. In the US, the medical community is starting to investigate the links between vaping and lung illnesses like pneumonia. Aside from the increased risk for nicotine dependence, the Government of Canada warns that while vaping products contain fewer and different chemicals compared to tobacco products, the long-term effects of inhaling the chemicals used to produce vape oils and e-cigarettes is unknown. For flavoured products in particular, the chemicals used to create the flavours may be safe to ingest, however, whether they are safe to inhale has yet to be tested.
Public organizations like the Canadian Vaping Association (CVA) openly voiced their support of provincial health authorities to enact policies that reduce rates of vaping and e-cigarette consumption among young people. However, whether or not legalisation such as outright bans are the solution is up for debate. The CVA is worried that banning flavoured products will hurt those adults trying to quit smoking more than it will help steer young people away from nicotine exposure. The CVA recently announced that regulations should be targeting those companies which clearly promote and market their products to young people. Vaping products were, after all, created with the intention to be used as a smoking cessation tools for adults.
In 2018, convenience stores in Canada started selling tobacco-infused vape products, and the CVA points to this introduction as the reason for the increases in youth e-cigarette use. In place of a ban on flavoured products, the CVA advocates for regulations that cap nicotine levels in pod-style vaping products and eliminates the availability of combustible tobacco altogether. Kelly Cull, the director of public policy with the Canadian Cancer Society in Atlantic Canada, echoes these recommendations. In her comments to CBC after the announcement of the new NS regulations, Cull noted she would like to see the incorporation of caps on nicotine levels and restriction of sales of vaping products to specialty stores, alongside the flavour ban. In September 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that federal legislation concerning an e-cigarette ban will not come until there is enough evidence suggesting the most effective way to reduce youth e-cigarette use.
Melissa Slauenwhite is a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She comes from Halifax, Nova Scotia and holds an honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dalhousie University. Her previous research includes an analysis of basic income guarantees and how they are portrayed in Canadian news media. Her policy interests include social justice, poverty reduction, Indigenous affairs, and corrections. She aspires to work with correctional services, improving programming and social reintegration for current and previous offenders.