Last summer, I was tasked with researching e-cigarette legislation across Canada for the Canadian Constitution Foundation’s recently released report.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices used to inhale vapour that can contain nicotine and are often used as a substitute for traditional cigarettes. To aid my research, I became better acquainted with e-cigarette products and the Canadians who rely on them by spending time in a Calgary vape shop.
During my short time in the shop, numerous people purchased e-juices — the liquid that goes into vaporizers. Among them was a 75-year-old woman shopping for herself and her husband. They were both lifelong smokers who, after years of trying other cessation methods, had recently quit by using e-cigarettes.
The employee helping her was a young man who had worked in the oilsands, where he had been smoking two packs a day. He had managed to quit cigarettes by vaping and then weaning off nicotine completely by slowly switching to e-juices without the stimulant. The store owner gave me a stack of testimonials with similar stories of customers noting positive changes in their health and personally savings thousands of dollars.
I was angry. How could a product with such a clear and positive impact on so many lives be at risk of being regulated out of the marketplace? The federal and provincial governments needed to view e-cigarettes as a harm-reduction alternative and a public health opportunity.
Across Canada, some provinces have legislated that e-cigarettes are equivalent to tobacco products, by promoting the idea that combustible tobacco smoke and vapour are equally harmful. The assertion that e-cigarettes are not a viable cessation tool is scientifically incorrect, morally dangerous and likely in violation of our charter right to access harm-reduction alternatives.
The Royal College of Physicians, arguably the most prestigious medical body in the world, did an exhaustive evaluation and concluded that e-cigs are likely to be at least 95 per cent less hazardous than smoking. As Public Health England states, “…there is no circumstance in which it is better for a smoker to continue smoking.”
In August, I wrote an op-ed on my research into e-cigarettes and received a response from Dr. Richard Stanwick, the chief medical health officer of Island Health in British Columbia. In his response, printed in Victoria’s Times Colonist, he stated, “Under federal law, e-cigarettes cannot be legally sold in Canada.”
Aside from the fact that lack of federal legislation, or the opinion of a bureaucrat, does not inherently make a product illegal, he goes on to claim that Public Health England’s reports are “at odds with most of the developed world.”
Reminder: Public Health England is the foremost public health body in the U.K.
Stanwick closed his response by writing, “E-cigarettes are only less harmful than traditional cigarettes, not harmless,” which is exactly my point. Since 2013, one person in the U.K. has switched from traditional smoking to vaping every four minutes. This has saved the British economy millions of dollars in health-care costs, put personal choice back into the hands of consumers, aided manufacturers’ ability to innovate and provide higher quality products and, most importantly, has saved lives.
Canadians can save over $500 billion in health-care costs and tens of thousands of lives by pushing the national smoking rate down to 12 per cent. With the use of harm reduction strategies to help people get off cigarettes, getting well below 12 per cent becomes not only possible, but simple.
Of course, it is preferable for people to quit nicotine products completely. Just like it would be preferable if people did not use drugs, engage in sex outside of marriage, drive cars or eat hamburgers. However, making the switch to e-cigarettes is a proven, effective harm reduction alternative — just like clean needles, condoms, auto safety features and food preparation standards.
Canada should be regulating the e-cigarette industry in a way that facilitates smoking cessation through education and supportive policies, instead of pushing recovering smokers back into the deadly embrace of cigarette companies.
Lauren Millar is a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa and was a liberal studies fellow at the Canadian Constitution Foundation.
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