Saving Some Lives: Sacrificing Others

September 24, 2019

Jon Tyson Unsplash

I remember the indie vape industry from the early days. The hardware was okay, nothing near what it is today but good enough that in combination with a high nicotine free-base e-liquid a smoker could be convinced to give it a go. Even a reluctant consumer like myself who, in all truth, wasn’t looking to quit my favourite and only real vice. 

There was no magic bullet: no one size fits all solution. The hardware was limited, but there were options. The juice selection was also more limited but a person could easily get a liquid from 3 mg to 24 mg (18-24 mg was often recommended for heavy smokers, like myself) in a variety of flavours, all of them (except for tobacco) better than the taste of cigarettes.

The most exciting part of the industry in those days was the passionate conviction that any smoker willing to give vaping a decent shot could be convinced to put away the cigarettes for good. That finally, there was something that could succeed where all other NRTs had failed for so many and we could actually save people’s lives. “Vape family” became a term commonly used in the community to indicate our connection. Our connection with complete strangers who also wanted to quit, or try quitting, cigarettes. And maybe, or maybe not, quit nicotine. We were in this together, no judgment, and together we could help more people who could in turn help more people. What an incredible movement! And so promising. 

I happen to live in a community of heavy smokers. It’s not uncommon to see generations of families, all of them smokers, catching up on the week’s events with friends and neighbours. You won’t see a no smoking sign around here. I live in a remote, rural area of Alberta. A lot of farmers and ranchers, people who have lived out here all their lives and plan to raise their families on the same property they grew up on, or on a section nearby. 

They’re good people. Hard working people. Most don’t live very glamorous lives but we have big skies and clean air and wildlife and community functions. If something happens to one of our neighbours (and a neighbour is anyone within a ninety kilometer stretch) we pitch in. We have to buy our drinking water because most of us don’t have good potable water from our wells, when our power goes out it can be off for twelve hours or more, if a medical specialist is needed it’s a financial hit because a trip to the city and gas and lodgings will be required, we don’t have access to a lot of amenities that city folk consider “basic”. 

It’s all right though. You never pass a driver on the road who doesn’t give you a wave going by and there’s never a quiet moment in line at the local store. Until I moved to the country, I had no idea what a hotspot a post office could be, or that an impromptu meeting could happen at the side of the road, people pulling over to catch up with neighbours they missed during the working week. I love it out here.

There’s a lot of that same feeling in the vape community. People helping people, strangers- not for anything in return, just for the feeling of doing something good, of community. And sure, there’s some profit in there (for some), but that’s the way it is in any commercial enterprise. But that’s never shaken the underlying values of the community. 

And so maybe you can imagine my shock at the suggestion that I get behind the proposal to sacrifice my friends and neighbours and other already marginalized communities to save “the industry.” Maybe you can imagine what a slap in the face it felt like to have this come as the suggestion from industry players, and not from the government. “Ban all vape sales outside of vape shops.” And not based on anything solid, like data suggesting that this might prevent the uptake of vaping among the youth we’re so worried about (pro tip: it won’t and there’ll be only the shops left to take the blame which will lead to yet more repercussions), but based on a ill-conceived hunch that if we choose our own sacrifices that might be an end to them. 

It shook me, that I never saw it coming. But amidst all the talk of community and saving lives, and the right of adults to access adult products, and of liberty and personal autonomy, and of harm reduction,I forgot that this is business. I don’t know when the primary focus shifted from saving lives to saving jobs and saving investments but it did, and our priorities have shifted in turn.  


I was still stuck on the idea that we- the community- were out to save people, to save lives. But if that were well and truly the guiding principle, we wouldn’t be deciding which people to save. We wouldn’t be sacrificing and ostracizing a segment of the population based on geographic location or the device they choose to use. 

I could care less what kind of device Mrs. Jones down the way chooses to use if it gets her off cigarettes. I only care that she can access it. That she doesn’t have to make the conscious decision to try vaping, organize a ride three hours into the city, go into a vape shop where she doesn’t know anyone, just to try something she probably doesn’t believe will work in the first place. I want her to be able to go into the store and while she’s buying her cigarettes, decide- what the hell? I’ll take one of those stupid looking little things while I’m at it, one of those Myle’s or however you pronounce it. Because that’s how change happens out here. 

A dedicated vape shop couldn’t survive out here. There are very few shops of any kind that can. And that’s the case all over this great big, vast country of ours. Canada is home to many people outside of urban centres. In rural communities, in remote communities, on far flung reserves. And easy as it is to overlook them, or decide that their numbers don’t warrant attention, their lives matter just as much as anyone who lives in the city. 

I know that I have some people’s backs up over my resistance to the restrictions being proposed from within the industry. I haven’t even gotten started on all the ways in which I see this backfiring. But surely- surely, you can understand why I will not turn my back on my friends and neighbours. Why I will not say that some people are more equal or more worth saving than others. But I will say this- there has never been a successful citizen movement that relies on dividing people up and I don’t expect that there will be this time. 

I would just ask this: if you decide to go along with the proposition from industry of limiting access of vape products to adults only vape shops, you at least be precise with your language going forward. Instead of talking about “saving lives” you say “saving some lives.” Instead of saying “preserving access to harm reduction for adults” you say “for some adults.” Use most if it makes you more comfortable. But don’t heap insult on top of injury by pretending that you don’t see us.

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