To the uninitiated, walking into this suburban Toronto bar must look like a throwback to the 1980s. A cloud of what appears to be smoke can be seen hovering over a group at the far end of the establishment. But a quick check of the sense confirms that looks can be deceiving.
The air is fresh, lacking aroma of tobacco; the eyes aren’t watering with the sting of fresh smoke seeping into the sockets; and instead of ash trays and cigarette packs, the tables are full of small bottles of liquid and other pieces of equipment. On this night, a group of Toronto area electronic cigarette, enthusiasts are getting together for their monthly meet-up.
E-cigarettes were invented in 2003 by a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik. The company he worked for, Golden Dragon Holdings, was so impressed, it changed its name to Ruyan that is translated “like smoke” and began marketing the product the following year. Since that time, a vibrant international market in e-cigarette equipment and supplies has developed.
The devices contain a heating element that turns a liquid made of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin (two common food additives) and nicotine into a water vapor, which simulates the act of smoking and delivers nicotine to the body, without exposing it to the carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. The liquids are available in a divertissement of flavors and nicotine strengths.
Most experts agree that more research needs to be done to determine just how much safer it is than smoking. But consider this: Detailed studies have been conducted to determine the chemical composition of e-cigarette liquid and it has not been found to contain more than trace elements of any of the carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. Cigarettes, on the other hand, contain over 10,000 chemicals (only 5,300 of which have been identified) and 40 known carcinogens.
It’s clear that since nothing is being combusted in an e-cigarette; their use is significantly less harmful than smoking. A 2010 paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy reviewed the available data and concluded that; “electronic cigarettes are a much safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes.” Researchers at the Canadian organization TobaccoHarmReduction.org called e-cigarettes “the tobacco harm reduction phenomenon of the year.”
But just because a technology has the potential to save millions of lives, doesn’t mean someone hasn’t tried to ban it.
In 2009, Health Canada issued a warning on its website, saying that e-cigarettes fall under the Food and Drugs Act and must therefore be approved by the government for sale in Canada. But, so far, “no electronic smoking products have been granted a market authorization in Canada.”
In practical terms, Health Canada cannot stop the sale of the e-cigarettes or liquids that do not contain nicotine. So Canadians have no trouble buying the equipment, which is generally sold over the Internet. A number of studies have shown that the illusion of smoking created by the device helps to satisfy cravings, but without nicotine, it cannot help smokers get over the physiological dependence that is created by the drug.
A number of Canadian vendors have continued to sell nicotine-containing liquids, in defiance of Health Canada’s edict. But some of the more popular companies have had to shut down, after being threatened by Health Canada and the RCMP. This forces many Canadians to make purchases from U.S. and other foreign companies, but they risk having their shipments intercepted at the border.
Most of the harm caused by tobacco use comes from inhaling smoke and all the carcinogens that come with it. Nicotine itself, while highly addictive, is one of the more benign elements of tobacco. Efforts to reduce the harm caused by other substances, like drugs and alcohol, often place a considerable burden on the taxpayer. But what we have here is a solution to reduce the negative effects of tobacco use, which has been developed without any government intervention or funding. Many people have successfully kicked their tobacco habit in favor of these less-dangerous electronic products. As University of Ottawa professor and tobacco control expert David Sweanor put it, e-cigarettes are “exactly what the tobacco companies have been afraid of all these years” - a tobacco-free cigarette alternative.
To figure out why the government would try to prohibit the use of these products, one simply has to follow the money. Between 2001 and 2008, the federal government collected $20.4-billion worth of tobacco taxes. Rather than implementing policies that are in the best interests of Canadians, it is the government that has become addicted to the lucrative tobacco industry.
It’s time to break the addiction: End the Canadian ban on electronic cigarettes.