Federal officials have to act right away to avoid further risks of serious illness from vaping, eight Canadian health organizations said Sept 19.
The groups are asking for an interim order from Health Canada to curb the marketing of vaping products, restrict the flavours available and regulate their nicotine levels.
Vaping products, the organizations say, should be treated the same way as tobacco products.
“Youth vaping has become a public-health crisis,” Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said at a news conference in Ottawa.
Thursday’s call comes after news of a serious vaping-related illness in London, Ont., as well as hundreds of cases in the United States, including seven deaths reportedly linked to vaping. Authorities are still struggling to determine what exactly has made vapers sick.
And on Thursday, Health Canada issued a statement advising vapers again to monitor themselves for coughs, shortness of breath or chest pain and to seek medical attention if they are concerned.
The coalition of health groups said an interim order would allow the government to put in place regulations for up to 12 months while permanent versions were drafted.
“Wasting time on this can only increase the risks to Canadians,” Buchman said.
The organizations are asking for all federal parties to commit to issuing such an order within 60 days of forming government after the Oct. 21 election.
The group includes the Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Lung Association, Coalition quebecoise pour le controle du tabac, Heart & Stroke, Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.
The organizations recommended restrictions on advertising similar to those on ordinary tobacco, a ban on most or all flavoured products, and a nicotine restriction of 20 mg/ml of vaping fluid in line with European Union standards.
The groups shied away from calling for a full ban on vaping products, instead focusing on the surging rate of vaping among younger Canadians.
A survey done for Health Canada and published this year found that one-fifth of high school aged students reported using vaping products, as well as one-seventh of children aged 13 and 14.
Cynthia Callard, the executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said vaping products have changed to become more addictive, attractive and accessible to youth.
“In short, tobacco companies are hooking kids on vape products in the same ways they used to hook their parents and grandparents on cigarettes,” Callard said.
Imperial Tobacco Canada issued a statement saying the solution to recent health concerns over vaping was “enforcement of existing restrictions on sales to youth and prohibitions on flavours appealing to youth” as well as regulations ensuring higher product quality and safety.
David Hammond, a professor at the University of Waterloo who has studied vaping in Canada, said the statement from the health groups emphasizes a consensus that “something has to be done” on vaping, especially on advertising, flavours and access for youth.
He said vaping can clearly be harmful, though less harmful than smoking, which is not saying much, he added.
Still, Hammond said there is some room for vaping as a means of helping people quit smoking.
“Can they help people quit? Yes. Are they an absolute game-changer? Not right now,” he said.
There is no doubt that the rate of vaping in Canada has increased “on every measure,” Hammond said.
He noted that legislation allowing the sale of vaping products coincided with the entrance of the company Juul into the market. That company “changed the chemistry to make it easier, more palatable to inhale very high levels of nicotine,” he said.
At the same time, the Canadian government “clearly opened (the door) too wide for advertising and promotion,” especially to younger Canadians, Hammond said.
He said restrictions on advertising, on at least some flavours and on sales were a good place to start, but cautioned that vaping will be a tough challenge for governments.
“These are here to stay,” he said, flagging the vaping of cannabis as the next issue.
Juliet Guichon, a professor at the University of Calgary, echoed the view that Canadian legislation does not address youth vaping with enough seriousness.
“I think (the government) didn’t realize at the time what was going to happen,” she said.
She floated a few ways of reducing vaping among minors, including requiring retailers to ask for identification from purchasers, and potentially raising the age required to buy vaping products to 21.
On Sept. 18, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Health Canada would look at several kinds of regulations for vaping, but had not yet committed to any changes.