Canada’s Proposed Vaping Rules Could Turn Young People Into Smokers, Users Say

Ex-smokers worry the proposed regulations to cut down on nicotine in vapes might bring them back to cigarettes.
June 15, 2021, 3:32pm
​Health Canada is considering new vaping rules to curb teen vaping
Health Canada is considering new vaping rules to curb teen vaping. PTHE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Tony Dejak 

Canada’s plan to significantly decrease the amount of nicotine allowed in vapes and potentially restrict flavours to curb teen vaping has sparked anger among vapers and ex-smokers who say the new rules may turn them back to smokers. 

The federal department of Health says the availability of high-nicotine vaping products in the market since 2018 is one of the factors that led to a swift rise in teen vaping. 

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According to the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol, and Drugs Survey, students in Grades 7-12 who vaped doubled from 2016-17 to 2018-19, rising from 10 to 20.2 percent. Nearly 30 percent of Grades 10-12 students were vaping in 2018-19.

The proposal to limit the nicotine concentration in vapes to 20 mg/mL from the previously set 66 mg/mL passed its public consultation period in March and, according to some vape retailers, is expected to be reviewed throughout the spring. It was already implemented provincially in Nova Scotia and British Columbia in 2020. 

In the vaping industry, the regulation brings uncertainty for both customers and sellers. Some vape retailers told Vice World News their customers started stocking up on higher nicotine vapes and juice once they heard of the regulation.

Nikol, 21, from Bradford, Ontario, said when she first found out about the new regulation, her palms started to sweat just thinking of transitioning down. “I was shocked,” said Nikol, who did not want her last name used because she works in health care. “I’m worried that I’m going to start smoking cigarettes again.” She said she used to be a cigarette smoker and was able to quit by vaping 40 mg/mL. 

Another criticism of the nicotine cap is that people would simply take more puffs from their vape to get the same nicotine fix, which can actually expose them to more toxic chemicals. ”I will 100 percent be taking more tokes,” said Nikol. 

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Daniel David, who opened one of the very first vape shops in Canada in 2010 and serves as president of the Vaping Industry Trade Association of Canada, said his industry does not want to see teens vaping. But “we can’t forget about the people who rely on it and switched to it as a harm reduction product,” he said. 

It is unclear if or when the proposed nicotine cap will pass, but if it does, vape shops will have 15 days to get rid of vaping products with over 20 mg/mL of nicotine. Overall, these products capture about 62 per cent of the domestic vaping market. 

Currently, David said Canada doesn’t have a large black market for vapes, but “if you over-regulate, you’re going to push an illicit market. And then you’re going to have much bigger problems with an illicit market because you can’t control it.” 

The effects of a black vape market were felt in 2019, when EVALI, a lung injury also known as the “mysterious vaping illness,” made headlines. The lung damage from it varies from a cough or shortness of breath, to pneumonia and acute inflammatory reactions. The U.S. reported 68 deaths and over 2,800 hospitalizations from EVALI while 20 cases were reported in Canada. Eventually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified vitamin E acetate primarily used in black market THC vapes as the main cause of the outbreak. 

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But if people don’t resort to a black market to get their fix, some may resort back to old-fashioned smoking—which the government is aware of. 

As noted in its regulatory impact analysis statement on the proposed nicotine cap, “profit loss to vaping industry members who are also manufacturers of tobacco products may be mitigated by substitution of tobacco purchases from dual users who would go back to smoking and adult smokers who would continue to smoke instead of switching.”

Health Canada is also working on a national regulation regarding flavours. While specifics are still unknown, a public comment period on a proposal is expected soon. Currently, promoting vaping flavours that appeal to young people and can be associated with candy, dessert, and soft drinks is already prohibited under the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act. 

Marion Burt, 72, lives in Scarborough, Ontario, and switched to vaping after smoking for 40 years, mainly because of the flavours. Her favourites are sweet unicorn fart and rice crispy treats. She said she already started experimenting with making her own flavoured vape juice in preparation for when the government announces new rules. 

“They don’t care about us. Everything is focused on youth,” she said.

Marion at vaping rally.jpg

Marion at a vaping rally. Photo submitted.

Darryl Tempest, the executive director of the Canadian Vaping Association, is currently working on a constitutional challenge that argues the government has not done enough to study the effects of vaping while restricting what could be considered a harm reduction product. 

“Our only path is working on educating politicians or going the legal route,” said Tempest. 

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Although there is evidence that vaping can hurt cardiovascular health and lead to lung disease, the precise risk of long-term use is largely unknown. Still, organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Lung Association, and the Canadian Medical Association all agree that vapes are less harmful than cigarettes. 

The government’s impact statement analysis says that young people are more likely to use vapes with higher nicotine levels. Forty-five percent of youth vapers report using vaping products with nicotine concentration equal to or above 20 mg/mL compared to 33 percent of adult vapers. 

A Health Canada survey found approximately 45 percent of youth vapers are dual users, meaning they smoke cigarettes as well as vape. This was found to be even more dangerous than using either cigarettes or vapes separately, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

“The evidence has really painted a clear picture that this is a problem that needs to be addressed,” said Lesley James, senior manager of health policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. 

In the U.K., where only 12.6 percent of youth aged 16-19 reported vaping in 2019, a nicotine cap of 20mg/mL has been in place since 2014. The U.K. also actively promotes vapes as a way to stop smoking while discouraging teens from using them, which appears to be working as the majority of vapers there are current or former smokers.

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Up until 2018, the vaping market in Canada was largely unregulated, so vape shops were left to make up their own rules. Dr. Nicholas Chadi, an adolescent medicine and addiction specialist based in Montreal, said the government wasn’t responsive enough to lower the nicotine concentration and curb what has turned into a youth vaping epidemic. 

“That was a tremendous mistake from Health Canada and several regulatory bodies in North America,” he said. 

At the same time, experts say a nicotine cap alone is not enough to stop teens from vaping.

A 2019 International Tobacco Control Youth Tobacco and Vaping Survey found young people vaped more for fun or the flavour, out of curiosity, or to deal with anxiety rather than for the nicotine. 

Mark Morava started vaping three years ago after he graduated from high school. He said if the limit was 20 mg/mL back then, it wouldn’t have stopped him from trying it because he didn’t do it for the nicotine but to blow clouds and enjoy the flavours.

After trying a Juul with a nicotine concentration of 50 mg/mL, he loved the buzz so much he got his own. But slowly, he found himself unable to stop. He said he supports the new nicotine cap because it will get fewer people hooked or addicted.

Morava was eventually able to reduce his intake to 20 mg/ml, but still has a hard time quitting because of stress, having his friends still doing it, and “the feeling like you’re missing something when you don’t have it.”

He said the best thing that could help him quit would be knowing what effects vapes could have on his body in the long run. “All the packages are so colourful, fruity, and welcoming. And then a couple of years later, all of a sudden you’re short of breath.”

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