E-cigarettes in grey zone

In the few short years since the term “electronic cigarettes” entered the Canadian lexicon, the popularity of the devices has exploded.

"Vaping" has entered pop culture consciousness on series such as "House of Cards.” There are vaping cafes popping up across Canada where enthusiasts learn about the newest devices and “e-juice” flavour cartridges. There are even online “vapologists” who can recommend e-cigarette juice the way a sommelier might recommend a wine.

But even as vaping becoming more commonplace, the legal status of the devices is still not clear, and health regulators have been largely silent on how, or if, they plan to regulate the growing industry.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is expected to propose new regulations on e-cigarettes as early as this month. Those regulations will likely address how the products can be marketed, impose rules on health warning labels and ingredient lists, and perhaps call for bans on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

Health Canada, meanwhile, has not said whether it too plans regulations, but it’s likely health regulators will be watching how U.S. authorities proceed.

Health Canada last publicly addressed vaping in 2009, advising Canadians not to buy or use the products because the safety of the products had not been proven. The agency also reminded Canadians that no company has been granted market authorization under the Food and Drugs Act to manufacture and sell e-cigarettes that deliver nicotine.

But e-cigarettes that are not “expressly intended” for nicotine delivery continue to exist in a regulatory grey zone, neither approved nor banned in Canada. And even while e-cigarette “juice” that contains nicotine is officially not permitted for sale in Canada, the enforcement of that ban has been spotty at best, says Melodie Tilson, the director of policy for the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association.

“In fact, we do have e-cigarettes with nicotine that are readily available on the market due to a lack of enforcement and because it’s very hard for consumers to know whether they contain nicotine,” she recently told CTV’s Canada AM.

She says her group is concerned about e-cigarettes in large part because they worry they could become a “gateway” for young non-smokers to tobacco smoking.

“If they are being widely promoted like they are now and being promoted the way cigarettes were, and if they’re being widely used in public places and workplaces where smoking used to be permitted, we could re-normalize the act of smoking for a new generation,” she said.

So do e-cigarettes help smokers kick their habit, or re-enforce it? Again, there have not been enough high-quality research to say for sure.

The question of the devices' safety remains largely unanswered as well. Proponents point out that the vapour from e-cigarettes is free of the usual carcinogens found in tobacco. But others worry about the propylene glycol in the flavoured "juice" cartridges that becomes vapourized. Health Canada says propylene glycol is a known irritant and there are concerns might contain their own dangers. The effects of inhaling nicotine-laced vapour is even less well-understood.

Tilson's group, like many anti-smoking advocates, believe e-cigarettes could be helpful to smokers, pointing to two high quality studies that found that e-cigarettes can be as effective as nicotine patches in helping smokers quit.


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