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01/25/2021

Tobacco industry's use of Non Smoking Week to push vaping draws ire in the Maritimes

Health groups in the Maritimes are questioning the tobacco industry's use of 'National Non-Smoking Week' to promote vaping.

The week was established more than 40 years ago by health organizations including the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Lung Association which were concerned about what they called "a tobacco epidemic.''

In a news release issued this week, Imperial Tobacco Canada, whose brands include Du Maurier, Player's and Vuse, framed vaping as a safer option to cigarettes, citing decades of research they have invested in and statements by national health bodies.

"When you look at today's reality, I believe it is time that we think beyond the typical ways we have approached non-smoking,'' said Eric Gagnon, Imperial's vice-president of corporate and regulatory affairs. "Let's ask ourselves: does the concept of `non-smoking' have to be zero-sum? Does it have to be quit or die? Or can it also include replacing cigarettes with a less risky alternative?''

Gagnon told the Times & Transcript that the company is trying to "generate a proper debate.'' He said government regulation needs to open up so vaping products can achieve their "full potential in harm-reduction,'' citing flavour bans and nicotine caps in vaping products as counter-intuitive.

But Stephane Robichaud, CEO of the New Brunswick Health Council, said the viewpoint that vaping is not causing a great deal of harm itself is dangerous and outdated. He would like to see other programs and methods elevated during Non-Smoking Week instead, programs such as those through Horizon Health that may use medication, discussion and other strategies to help users quit both smoking and vaping.

"In the last 18 to 24 months, science has been building that vaping is not a safe alternative,'' Robichaud said. "We have seen an increase in youth experimenting in vaping ... and illnesses including chronic lung conditions have been significant.''

Kelly Cull, director of advocacy in Atlantic Canada for the Canadian Cancer Society, said the organization is advocating for governments to continue to invest money in nicotine replacement therapy, counselling and peer support programs.

Vaping, something that framed itself as a tool to stop smoking, has increasingly been used as a gateway to start smoking, Robichaud said, pointing to increases in vape use by New Brunswick students in grades six to 12 between 2016 and 2018, according to the council's Student Wellness Survey.

Numbers from the 2018-19 Canadian Student Tobacco Alcohol and Drug Survey are alarming, Cull said, with 41% of New Brunswick youth indicating they had tried vaping, 27% in the last 30 days.

New Brunswick already has more young people vaping than the national average, Cull said, but measures similar to what have been introduced elsewhere in the Maritimes, limiting flavours and introducing a nicotine ceiling, for example, could help curb that.

Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have both passed legislation to reduce the appeal of vaping, introducing flavour bans and a nicotine ceiling in products.

Imperial doesn't want to see that happen in New Brunswick, said Gagnon. While the company is in favour of efforts to reduce their products falling into the hands of young people, flavours, such as fruit flavours, are also important for appealing to adult smokers, he said, noting that if they're not available, there should be concern those trying to quit will return to cigarettes.

Ceiling caps and flavour bans have already contributed to vape shops closing in Nova Scotia, he said.