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Industry reacts to Ontario’s proposed vaping regulations

Move called a blow to c-store operators

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Industry associations at the national and provincial levels are up in arms over Ontario’s new plan to restricting the sale of flavoured vapes and e-cigarettes in convenience stores.

Last week, Health Minister Christine Elliott unveiled a number of measures designed to curb youth vaping (READ: It’s official: Ontario to ban flavoured vapes). The proposed rules, which are expected to come into effect May 1, include restricting the sale of flavoured vape products to specialty vape and cannabis retail stores (products with menthol, mint and tobacco are to be exempt). In addition, vapour products with nicotine levels higher than 20 milligrams will be limited to specialty stores, which are supposed to only serve customers 19 and older.

“As we learned more about the alarming increase in youth vaping, one thing has become abundantly clear: we need to do more,” Elliott said, citing recent studies suggesting use of vaping products among young people surged 74% in the past year. Indeed, the early evidence is quite concerning.”

However, industry associations say the efforts are misguided and fail to address the youth vaping crisis. In addition, the consensus is convenience stores, which already sell age-restricted products, such as tobacco, alcohol and lottery, are in an ideal position to sell vapes and accessories.

Despite having no evidence to suggest that youth are accessing vape products from convenience stores, the government is discriminating against them while allowing specialty vape shops and online retailers to continue to operate unchecked, says Anne Kothawala, president and CEO of the Convenience Industry Council of Canada. “Convenience stores are regulated, experienced and trusted, yet the government is handing a monopoly to vape shops that have flouted the law for years. In Ontario, we pass mystery-shopping tests at a rate of over 96%. In addition, 87% of convenience stores passed Health Canada compliance tests while 80% of vape shops failed.”

Kothawala pointed to a recent study—”2019 Drug use Among Ontario Students Report”—from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which shows that convenience stores are not a significant source of vaping products for youth (READ: C-stores not a major source for youth vaping: Study).

“This government promised that it would make evidence-based decisions but are instead favouring appearance over substance which will have no effect on youth vaping,” said Kothawala.
In addition, studies show that many adults use vaping products to wean themselves off of tobacco products. Kothawala noted that the proposal to reduce nicotine concentrations would force many of these adult vapers back to cigarettes. “Our industry sales data shows that 80% of adult smokers who switched from tobacco to a reduced risk product chose a flavoured option with a nicotine concentration that matches that of a cigarette. While we fully support any efforts to combat the increase in youth vaping, restricting the ability of convenience stores to offer the products that our adult customers need to successfully quit smoking is not only misguided, it is dangerous public policy.”

The Ontario Convenience Stores Association also came out swinging, unleashing a firestorm on Twitter criticizing the government’s decision. “The world of vaping needs to be controlled like tobacco as it is a nicotine delivery product. Every store selling vape needs the same consistent rules on age testing, handling, authorized adult flavours & strict penalties. Not different stores with different rules.”

OCSA president Dave Bryans also spoke to the issue during his remarks at The Convenience U CARWACS Show on March 3, saying retailers should be “outraged” and that the association will continue to work with the province to shape vaping regulations that are more fair to the convenience industry.

The Ontario Korean Businessmen’s Association (OKBA), which operates www.saveourstores.ca, said in a release it is “bewildered and extremely disappointed” by the province’s decision, calling it another “blow” to the reputation and bottom line of the convenience industry.

“Our members have been responsibly selling e-cigarettes and vaping products for many years and we work closely with our members to ensure minors cannot buy them in our stores,” said Kenny Shim, OKBA spokesperson and King Street West storeowner. “If government is truly concerned about vaping, they are targeting the wrong retail outlet in convenience stores. To think minors aren’t purchasing from vape shops is extremely naïve…. Our members were excited when the Ford government was elected in 2018. We didn’t expect this government to follow the previous Liberal government’s habit of picking winners and losers. What happened to, Open for Business??”

The province’s previous Liberal government was set to implement similar measures that would have kicked in last July, but the Progressive Conservatives paused those regulations shortly after taking office in June 2018. However, under increasing pressure to address youth vaping in the wake of growing health concerns, on January 1, Ford’s government banned the promotion of vaping products in convenience stores and gas stations.

In addition to the latest regulations, Elliott, who stopped short of implementing a provincial tax on the products, suggested the federal government should consider doing so: “We know that young people are more price sensitive than other consumers. Higher prices would also further deter youth who have never smoked from trying vapour products in the first place.”

Industry associations are calling on all levels of the government to consider the evidence and work closely with the convenience industry before moving ahead with any decisions.

“There is still time to implement policies that will work. But until the government addresses online sales and vape shops, the policies that have been proposed will not meet the outcomes that the government is suggesting they will,” said Kothawala. “The convenience industry has a plan that will actually address the issue of youth vaping and we encourage government to work with us to get this right.”

With files from Canadian Press.