Open Letter to my Alberta Member of Legislative Assembly on Vaping

December 13, 2019

Alberta provincial flag

Mr. Nate Horner,


I am writing with regards to Alberta’s upcoming legislation around vaping. It is my hope that our province will be eminently reasonable in its approach, especially as compared to some of the overreaction we are seeing in other provinces such as BC and Nova Scotia, for example. I also hope that this will end some of the uncertainty of operating a legitimate business in Alberta as right now the environment is anything but. 

As the representative for Drumheller-Stettler, I am sure you are sympathetic to the fact that a lot of rural Albertans continue to smoke. I did myself, as did my wife, until about seven years ago when I decided to give quitting one last shot with what was a new technology at the time. My father, who had been diagnosed with throat cancer, had taken up vaping at his doctor’s suggestion and managed to quit a decades long habit. I thought if it worked for him, it just might for me (patches, gum, and cold turkey having never worked for sustained periods of time in previous attempts). And it did. 

I also managed to convince my wife who very begrudgingly agreed to try and am happy to say that it worked for her too. She was a tougher case, having no desire to quit smoking, which led me to trying all manner of arguments. What finally seemed to convince her was building the right coils for her device (which I did myself, and continue to do) and tracking down the right flavours to appeal to her. It turned out that the right set of coils, the appropriate device, and berry and custard flavours hit the right balance to finally have her give up a cigarette habit that she swore she wasn’t interested in abandoning.

I’m glad that the market was wide open and unregulated at that point because it allowed a lot of ex-smokers to get involved and try to come up with the most winning combinations. Innovation abounded. We understood that one size would not fit all but that with enough really good options, we could convert more smoking friends, family, and neighbours. I don’t have to tell you that with 5,000,000 smokers in Canada alone, smoking remains a critical concern. 

It was at that time that I became involved in the vaping industry. The oil and gas sector in which I’ve always been involved was going through the last major downturn and I was at a loss. I’d dedicated my entire working life to that sector, 25 years. I was the first person to pioneer the use of GIS and 3D modelling technology to assist in site selection for facilities, now an industry standard. But here I had a new interest, vaping and the accompanying technology, and as it turns out, a real talent for building the small, intricate coils that go into open system atomizers. I had offers from shops to purchase the coils that I made and decided, with nothing else on the horizon in that moment, to dedicate my energy to what I still feel is a life changing industry.

I own my own shop now, and manage it along with my wife. We have managed an online shop since 2015, and thankfully we didn’t have to leave our home in the Special Areas. As you know, work is extremely hard to come by in this part of the province and it wasn’t always a certainty that we would be able to stay here after the downturn. We ship all over the country, and use Canada Post to age verify our packages for a marginal fee that we cover on behalf of our customers. We have never had any complaints or packages returned due to underage shopping (we have a banner on our website advising customers to have their ID ready). 

I understand the need for some regulation and I should point out that the industry self-regulated long before the government became involved. Shops have always maintained adult only environments and the technology was meant for smokers and ex-smokers, that’s how it was marketed. Of course we can’t technically say that now that the government is involved as we’re not defined as a cessation product. But adult ex-smokers and smokers are who we continue to deal with as shop owners and product managers/developers.

I understand the concern about the youth uptake of vaping, as does everyone in the industry that I speak with. This technology was never meant for teenagers. But I can’t say that I’m entirely shocked that teenagers have managed to get their hands on something they shouldn’t either. Teen rates of smoking are at 3.2% in 2018 (18% have “tried it”), rates of cannabis use are 17%, and rates of alcohol use are through the roof at 44%, according to Stats Can. All of those things are illegal for young people to access. While I understand the concern, I do think the reaction (at least in some parts of the country) has been excessive. 

Can you imagine if we reacted similarly to teenage use of alcohol? People would be outraged at suggestions of prohibiting or severely restricting adult access to alcohol, or restricting flavours. I don’t know if you saw the story this week about the lineup (of adults) waiting for the new release of Chicken Bones (candy) flavoured alcohol in New Brunswick. Can you imagine telling those people that adults don’t like or need candy flavoured alcohol? Yet some of those same people who stood in line might argue that ex-smokers don’t deserve a choice in flavours.

I think one thing that anti-smoking activists get wrong is that they think if they can make people choose between smoking and dying or not smoking at all, smokers will choose not to smoke. But we know this is not true. People need options, they need off-ramps that work for them or they will continue to smoke. 45,000 Canadians die from a tobacco-related disease every year. In spite of all the evidence, all the well-intentioned lectures, in spite of the social and familial pressure, the economic burden, they do not want to or cannot quit. How, in good conscience, are we going to tell them that they should be denied something that may work, or is working for them? We should allow every opportunity for smokers to switch as possible. I assume that is the reason for keeping Champix (a prescription drug with a sketchy history) on the market though it has been linked to the deaths of 44 ex-smokers since its introduction in the Canadian market in 2007. Vaping flavoured nicotine e-cigarettes, incidentally, have been associated with no deaths- anywhere in the world.

Whether we’re allowed to say it or not, vaping is helping people transition from smoking and it makes complete sense when you look at the technology. It mimics smoking just closely enough to satisfy certain criteria: there is a hand to mouth component that many smokers find hard to quit, there is vapour produced in place of smoke but it simulates the feeling of smoking, and of course there is the delivery of nicotine. But that is where the similarity ends. 

To date, no tobacco e-liquids can completely replicate the flavour of burning tobacco. And while that might seem like a downside, it turns out that it is good to separate a smoker from associating the taste of tobacco with the delivery of nicotine. It’s also a good thing that there are any number of flavours available, so a person trying to make the switch doesn’t have to rely on liking one or two or three available options. They also don’t have to rely on liking a flavour indefinitely, as when they get tired of one they can choose another. Just as we wouldn’t commit to eating the same thing every day at all our meals, nobody wants to vape the same thing either. 

And as Health Canada has importantly pointed out, the only substance of any concern in e-liquid is nicotine itself, and only if ingested directly (i.e. by drinking it). The same nicotine that is available (and considered safe to use) in patches and sprays and lozenges is safe to use in e-liquids. Yes, nicotine is dependence forming (as is caffeine) but it does not cause cancer or the myriad other illnesses associated with burning tobacco. I fear that fact is being lost in the current conversation. When the anti-smoking crusade began, it was intended to get people to stop smoking. It has now transformed to include anything-that-reminds-people-of-smoking. It has become a moral crusade in place of a health focused strategy.

In fact, some of the restrictions proposed in other provinces may have dire unintended consequences. For instance, a flavour restriction will limit the ability to convert smokers to ex-smokers. As mentioned, flavours play a big role in people choosing to quit and staying off cigarettes. See the flavour survey on Rights 4 Vapers that surveyed 5,000 vapers in Canada for example, or the one in the United States that surveyed over 69,000 participants (I’ve included the links below). It won’t eliminate youth uptake, as census after census cite numerous reasons for trying e-cigarettes, chief among them curiosity. But it will introduce them to a tobacco-like flavour, perhaps making a transition to smoking easier or more likely. (At present, there is no evidence to suggest that vaping leads to smoking, quite the opposite.) And it will result in experimentation, people (including young people) adding flavours to unflavoured products or buying bootleg flavoured products from the black market. Prohibition has never solved any problem, only created them.

And restricting point of sale will also limit conversions. As you know, the Special Areas boasts  more than 5,000,000 acres (20,369 km²) and only 4,500 occupants. We don’t have a lot of specialty shops of any sort out here. What we do have are gas stations and convenience stores, where people buy their cigarettes and should be able to access a safer alternative, even on a whim which is how a decision to ‘try quitting’ often happens. We know from Health Canada that most youth access these products through “social sources” and those are not likely to dry up but restrictions will hit adult consumers. 

I don’t disagree with limiting the types of advertising (for instance, billboards or giveaways or advertising in predominantly underage establishments). But I do feel that a certain amount of advertising is warranted if it is to be effective in getting people to switch from cigarettes. It can’t be seen to be an ‘underground’ or secretive market. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that our media (most notably the CBC) is the biggest advertiser to young people in that they constantly promote their stories with photographs or video of youth vaping. How that is considered good practice is beyond me. In the UK, stories about vaping generally feature older people, and this no doubt has an impact on the public (and teenagers) view of vaping. 

I also don’t agree with restricting nicotine below 50 mg/ml, which is the equivalent that a cigarette delivers. In order to be most effective, there should be options that closely mirror the nicotine intake of a current smoker. Many people transition to lower nicotine levels over time, something that “addicts” don’t naturally do begging the question of why we aren’t treating this as a dependence instead of addiction. 

You may have seen several stories in the news recently that blamed vaping for injuries to several people but the fact is that these injuries were caused by using black market marijuana products, and more specifically vitamin E acetate, and had absolutely nothing to do with nicotine vaping. It would be a tragedy to promote policies that limit access to vaping products based on fears created by an entirely separate and unrelated issue. We are already hearing from people who have gone back to smoking because of the irresponsible reporting on the issue. Others still who believe vaping to be more dangerous than smoking which is wholly wrong. As someone who has been excited to see the uptake of vaping by adult smokers, this backslide (encouraged in large part by our own media) has been beyond disheartening. 

In any case, I would appreciate if you did respond to me and let me know what we might expect from the Alberta government and what your personal stance is as our representative. This uncertain climate is unhelpful. I cannot make investments or projections more than a couple of months into the future. I’m in reactionary mode, thanks to the media’s reliance on sensationalistic ‘reporting.’ But to be constantly wondering how my own government will handle things going forward is a bridge too far. It’s too precarious to operate a successful business. I know that the Alberta government understands this concern because I hear it in reference to my old industry all the time. I worry from month to month whether we will be forced to close down shop, and whether we may need to relocate to the city for work in an already depressed economy, or even move to another province.

What began as excitement over a disruptive technology has quickly transitioned to a constant battleground and anxiety. I trust that the Alberta government does not want to depress its economy and people during this difficult time (never mind penalize smokers and ex-smokers) but I don’t have enough faith to go on that alone. Are we the province of innovation and science and technology, or will we follow in the footsteps of the other reactionary governments? I look forward to hearing from you. 

With Best Regards,

Shane Eubank


Studies referenced

Rights 4 Vapers flavour survey

Patterns of flavored e-cigarette use among adult vapers in the U.S. 

Summary of results for the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol, and Drugs Survey

cc.

Ab Minister of Health, Honourable Tyler Shandro

Ab Minister of Economic Development, Trade, and Tourism, Honourable Tanya Fir




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