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.
“So we want a regulatory framework that protects non-smokers and at the same time, gives smokers access to a product that could help them quit,” she said.
But that framework has still not materialized.
Even e-cigarette vendors themselves want to see regulation. Several have formed a group called the Electronic Cigarette Trade Association of Canada. which argues that Canada's e-cigarette industry has operated in a "Wild West" environment for too long.
The problem, say some observers, is that Health Canada is having trouble deciding whether e-cigarettes should be regulated as tobacco products -- even though they contain no tobacco -- or under the Food and Drug Act as medicines.
The ECTA says e-cigs shouldn’t be classified as either. The group says good studies are needed to show that e-cigarettes are safe and regulations on the products, to ensure that nicotine-free juice is free of nicotine and to regulate contaminants in e-cigarette juice.
Several health groups want to see much tougher rules, calling for immediate bans and regulations.
The Canadian Cancer Society is calling for nationwide bans on sales to minors, as well as controls on the advertising of e-cigarettes. They also want regulation on e-cig ingredients and bans on vaping in public places.
Last year, the Canadian Lung Association issued a policy statement to say vaping was “potentially harmful” to lungs and called for an all-out ban on the sale of e-cigarettes until their safety could be properly researched. But the group is currently re-evaluating its stance, as it investigates the devices' use as a quit-smoking aid.
With the practice growing and with no clear rules on vaping from the federal level, several jurisdictions are moving ahead on their own. Last December, New York City passed a bill banning vaping in restaurants, bars and clubs, while Los Angeles and several other California cities have banned vaping in public places.
Here in Canada, Nova Scotia said earlier this year it was planning to release legislation in the spring to regulate e-cigarettes the way tobacco is regulated, with bans on vaping in public places and bans on sales to minors.
For now, all eyes are on Nova Scotia, with many observers saying if Nova Scotia moves ahead with regulations first, it’s likely other provinces will follow suit.
With files from The Associated Press and the Canadian Press