Opinion: Alberta must move to reduce youth vaping

A man uses a vape device in this illustration picture, September 19, 2019. File photo. Adnan Abidi / REUTERS

Alberta — the last Canadian province to regulate vaping — finally held public consultations in November to create vaping rules. Government representatives listened to people from all walks of life, including industry. There were no surprises from big tobacco and big vape. Their ideas should not guide Alberta.

Much is at stake for tobacco and vaping industries. Because of increasingly strict smoking regulations, cigarette sales have been declining for years. Now, industry has benefited from many smokers taking up vaping, too. Are we surprised that industry is arguing against strict vaping regulations?

In November, the Alberta government heard from four vaping manufacturing companies, three industry associations and a seller of smokeless tobacco. Complying with Canada’s 2004 international tobacco control treaty obligations, our government has reported what industry said.

Industry worries that the Alberta government might ban vaping flavours. Nova Scotia recently banned all flavoured pods and e-juices, and the United States has banned fruity and dessert flavoured pods while pediatricians demand a ban on menthol flavour, too. The possibility of an Alberta all-flavour ban is real.

Imperial Tobacco and Imperial Brands — sellers of fruit or dessert-flavoured vaping products — and their industry associations, all opposed banning flavours. Juul is temporarily halting fruit flavour production aiming to earn “the trust of society.” The manufacturers claim to be concerned about public health, that flavours are necessary for people to switch from smoking to vaping.

But the evidence that vaping leads to switching is limited and in some cases ambiguous. Many smokers vape and smoke! Rothmans, Benson and Hedges, which does not sell fruit or dessert flavours, claims that such flavours are unnecessary. Industry’s flavour recommendations align with industry members’ interest.

Yet governments must act in the best interests of children and youth. Vaping is harmful and flavours entice young people to vape and confuse them about whether vaping is safe. The notion that fruity and dessert flavours help people stop smoking has been challenged in research. Amber Nolan, a Canadian teen hospitalized with vaping lung injury, said flavours are factors in getting people hooked: “There are so many. It’s like candy, you just want to try it all.” Sixty percent of Canadians want a flavour ban.

Regarding advertising, industry members say they want to market only to adults; research shows that industry markets to youth. In fact, Imperial Tobacco and Imperial Brands insisted that they be allowed to advertise in convenience stores, but advertising in stores encourages young people to vape (U.S. study). Ontario and Saskatchewan banned advertising in retail stores.

High nicotine levels addict youth rapidly. Unsurprisingly, almost all industry presenters to government opposed a cap on nicotine, including Juul which sells pods containing nicotine at 59 mg/ml. To help reduce youth vaping, Alberta could follow British Columbia’s and the European Union’s examples permitting nicotine levels of only 20 mg/ml.

Alberta is finally determined to tax vape products. Industry members generally favour lower tax than on tobacco products. Taxation can helpfully make vaping products too expensive for children and youth. Raising taxes on tobacco products has consistently been demonstrated to reduce smoking and would likely diminish vaping, too. Sixty-two per cent of Canadians favour a 20-per-cent tax on vaping products.

To reduce youth vaping, the government could raise the minimum age to 21. Prince Edward Island and the United States recently did so. Needless to say, no industry member advised Alberta to raise the age to 21. But such a move could be effective; it is hard for underage teens to find a 21 year-old who will purchase for them.

Many Alberta shops sell to minors. Although most industry members recommend licensing of retail stores, vendors are more likely to change behaviour with consequences. Government should fund more enforcement and revoke a licence after one unlawful sale.

We also need programs to help youth quit. Research found substantial evidence that youth who vape are more likely to start smoking cigarettes, especially those who would otherwise be at low risk of starting to smoke cigarettes .

Alberta cannot afford another generation of nicotine addicts. If nicotine addiction were a flood in our house, then we would first quickly turn off the tap. But industry has an interest in maintaining a steady stream of customers for its harmful nicotine products.

The Alberta government’s first priority is to protect the health of our children and youth. To reduce youth vaping, Alberta should ban flavours and advertising, reduce permitted nicotine levels to 20 mg/ml, make vapes unaffordable to the young by taxation, raise the minimum purchase age to 21, license and strictly police retail outlets and fund effective programs to help children and youth quit vaping and smoking.

Juliet Guichon, Ian Mitchell teach and Sofia Maruschak-Love, Alison Sears, Caitlin Calder-Bellamy, Kate McLennan-Dillabough, Jessica Chong and Alexa Krala are health science students at the University of Calgary. All are members of SAAVE: Stop Addicting Adolescents to Vaping and E-Cigarettes.