As health officials in Canada and the U.S. keep a close eye on a surge in illnesses possibly linked to vaping, so, too, are Canada’s political leaders.
Vaping has exploded in popularity among young people in both countries.
A recent Health Canada survey found nearly one in four students in Grades 7-12 have tried e-cigarettes.
And, according to a BMJ study, it’s only on the rise — the number of Canadian youth who vape jumped a considerable 74 per cent between 2017 and 2018.
The prevalence of teen vaping has been under increased scrutiny, particularly after a handful of deaths possibly linked to the habit.
In the U.S., public health officials are investigating nearly 500 cases of vaping-related lung illnesses. A sixth person died in the U.S. at the beginning of September.
While none of the investigations have definitively linked the illnesses to e-cigarettes, the vaping industry is pointing the finger at black market products or “street vapes.” Many of the reported incidents have also involved cannabis-based oil.
While the evidence isn’t conclusive, the U.S. has decided it won’t wait to find out.
This week, the Trump administration launched a crackdown on flavoured e-cigarettes, seeking to ban fruit, mint or menthol-flavoured products.
“A lot of people think vaping is wonderful, it’s great — it’s really not wonderful,” said U.S. President Donald Trump.
WATCH (Sept. 12, 2019): Vaping ‘epidemic’ prompts U.S. to issue ban
Canada’s political party leaders were not nearly as blunt on the subject.
“All of our decisions, when it comes to any sort of product in the market, should be based on evidence and should be based on the science, and if we have some science and evidence that point to a problem, then we should respond,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said.
“Right now, that science is unclear.”
Further consultations have been launched by the Trudeau government since restrictions were first slapped on vaping products last year.
The 2018 Tobacco and Vaping Products Act ushered in measures to curb the sales to people under 18, made child-resistant packaging mandatory and clamped down on “lifestyle advertising.”
Health Canada says there have been no reports of vaping-related deaths or acute lung diseases but warned Canadians to watch for symptoms of pulmonary illness.
Trudeau said his party is not against tightening the rules further. He said Health Canada has been consulting with experts for “many months… to determine the right path forward.”
“We’ve already taken a number of steps on vaping and harmful tobacco use and we’re always looking to do more to keep Canadians safe,” he said.
“But our decisions will be made based on evidence, based on data and we will have more to say as Health Canada continues to do its work of keeping Canadians safe, including from the dangers of vaping.”
WATCH (Sept. 12, 2019): Trudeau says decision on vape ban in Canada depends on evidence
The Canadian Public Health Association wants Health Canada to intensify its approach, and local and provincial public health officials want the federal government to expedite regulatory changes.
There have been some efforts to restrict the devices and their use jurisdictionally. Some school boards have even moved to prohibit use on campuses.
However, it seems no party is willing to commit to an outright ban.
“Banning addictive substances has not worked in the past,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told Global News. “Vaping needs better regulations and more research and education.”
Singh skirted the ban suggestion, saying he would make “good policies that protect the safety and health of Canadians.”
Conclusive evidence or not, e-cigarette devices “should not be in the hands of children, period,” said Dr. Dimas Mateos, a pediatric respirologist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
The kinds of chemicals in e-cigarettes aren’t always clear, Mateos said, and how the chemicals react inside the body when inhaled is even hazier.
“A lot of the flavourants, in particular, they are tested sometimes, if you eat them — if you ingest them,” he told Global News. “But we have never considered what would happen if you breathe them in.”
On deterring teens from vaping, all parties were in agreement.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer nodded to the party’s record on curbing tobacco use among youth.
Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was responsible for pulling flavoured cigarettes and cigars off store shelves. At the time, he said he believed the products were aimed at young people.
WATCH (Sept. 9, 2019): Alberta to become lone province with no e-cigarette legislation
“Our government took measures to ensure that tobacco products were properly regulated and make it more difficult or less enticing for young children or teens to take up tobacco habits,” Scheer said.
“We’re going to continue support measures that continue to do exactly that.”
Scheer was the only leader to directly refer to the recent move by Trump, saying he hadn’t seen the American regulations but would “certainly look at that.”
Health Canada has called the uptick in youth vaping concerning and said a number of initiatives are in the works to address it, including a national public education campaign.
Banning flavoured products is also not totally out of the question for Canada — it currently bans the promotion of flavours that appeal to youth. A consultation launched in April 2019 on regulations to restrict youth access looked at the possibility of a ban on sales and/or advertising of certain flavours.
“Health Canada is currently reviewing the feedback from this consultation,” a spokesperson told Global News.
WATCH: New York governor announces emergency plan to ban sale of flavoured e-cigarettes to minors
Whether the vaping concern uptick becomes a recurring topic for the party leaders on the campaign trail is difficult to gauge.
Julia Smith, a health researcher with Simon Fraser University in B.C., believes it should.
“The recent vaping-related deaths in the U.S. have clearly demonstrated how little we know about the health effects of these products. It is the government’s job to protect us from potentially harmful products and we need to hear from candidates on how they plan to do so,” Smith told Global News.
Smith called the current measures in place “inadequate,” particularly as they pertain to advertising.
WATCH: New Brunswick department of health monitoring vaping after deaths in the United States
“The current regulations are based on the assumption that smokers need access to these products and that they should, therefore, be widely available. The problem is that the companies have been allowed to market their products in ways that would never be allowed with combustible tobacco products,” she said.
“There is a JUUL ad at the bus stop I wait at every morning with my two-year-old… I don’t want my daughter exposed to nicotine advertising and I think most parents would agree. Plus, the bus we catch is an express to the university — the ad is clearly (targeted) at students, many of whom are under 19.”
She supports a ban on flavoured vape products in Canada, noting that some reviews and studies have found that banning flavours of tobacco products can lead to reduced tobacco use, especially among youth.
But not everyone is totally on board with making the vaping a topic of political contention.
Tara Kiran, a family physician and researcher at St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, put it like this:
“I think the population health impact of vaping is much smaller than cigarette smoking, alcohol or opioids.”