By now, it’s been well established in science that electronic cigarettes are a much healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. And they seem to be catching on. If they can save even a small fraction of the 14,000 people who die every day from smoking-related illnesses, it would be a huge win for public health. But for those running our nanny state, the popularity of these harm-reduction products can mean only one thing: an opportunity to impose draconian regulations on them and see what happens.
Ontario recently passed Bill 45, the (Forcing You Into) Making Healthier Choices Act, with all-party support. Only by discouraging the sale and use of e-cigarettes by subjecting them to many of the same restrictions as tobacco products, the legislation will make it harder for smokers the break the habit and switch to a healthier alternative. At the same time, bylaw staff in Calgary are urging city council to ban vaping anywhere smoking is not allowed — regulations that could come into effect as early as July.
Yet, in both cases, no one seems to be able to articulate why the new restrictions are necessary.
Ontario NDP health critic France Gelinas acknowledges there is scant evidence that e-cigarettes pose any danger to public health, but worries that “bringing e-cigarettes into bars and restaurants re-normalizes smoking.” As one busybody told the Calgary Herald, “Five-year-olds think the Muppets are real. You can’t expect a five-year-old to distinguish between a cigarette and an e-cigarette.” Yet if we went by that standard, we’d have to ban swearing and bikinis outdoors, because god forbid a parent would have to use displays of adult behaviour in public as an opportunity to teach their children about what’s acceptable.
Moreover, these arguments assume that vaporizers act as a sort of “gateway drug” for young people to get hooked on tobacco products. The evidence, however, does not support this assumption.
According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, released last April by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more teenagers have been experimenting with electronic cigarettes over the past few years, with the percentage of high school students who had used one within the past month rising from 1.5 per cent in 2011, to 13.4 per cent in 2014. If trying e-cigarettes really did lead to smoking, we would expect to see a corresponding increase in cigarette use. This was not the case: past-month cigarette use among high schoolers fell from 15.8 per cent to 9.2 per cent over the same period of time.
The results of the 2013 and 2014 Action on Smoking and Health surveys in the U.K. also found that e-cigarettes are not leading to nicotine addiction in young people: they did not find a single instance of a nonsmoking youth who used e-cigarettes more than once a week. In other words, while nonsmokers had experimented with e-cigs, none of them continued using the devices on a regular basis.
What’s more, since they can be purchased without nicotine, experimenting with e-cigarettes is less likely to lead to nicotine dependence than actual cigarettes. Although steps can, and should, be taken to prevent children and adolescents from purchasing e-cigarettes (Ontario’s legislation bans the sale to anyone under 19), it can only be seen as positive that underage smokers are using e-cigarettes to kick the habit and that fewer young people are lighting up in the first place.
Unfortunately, restricting the use of e-cigarettes anywhere smoking is banned, preventing vendors from showing their products and allowing customers to try them in-store, and banning flavoured liquid (which makes no sense, since, unlike tobacco, the liquid used by e-cigarettes does not have any flavour until it is added) — all of which Ontario’s new law does — will only serve to make it harder for smokers to switch to an alternative that could very well save their lives.
Ontario’s Liberal government is not discounting the possibility that it could back off on some of the heavy-handed restrictions imposed by this legislation before it comes into effect next January, if Health Canada classifies the devices as cessation aids. This begs the question as to why legislators thought the new restrictions necessary, if they’re willing to change them if another level of government arbitrarily decides to reclassify the product.
It’s not as though there isn’t any evidence that people have been using e-cigarettes to quit smoking for years. A study published a couple years ago in the medical journal The Lancet found that e-cigarette users were more successful at quitting smoking than those who used nicotine patches. Another study published last year in the journal Addiction found e-cig users were twice as likely to quit as those who used gum or the patch.
Indeed, it makes little sense to treat tobacco products and e-cigarettes the same, considering that the latter does not contain any tobacco and nothing is being combusted. Nor does the evidence suggest that the electronic devices pose much of a risk to their users or those around them. Quite the contrary: e-cigarettes have the potential to save millions of lives and significantly reduce health-care costs.
Arbitrarily placing draconian restrictions on a thing for no good reason is not something that governments should be doing in a free country. At some point, voters will need to remind our legislators.
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