You Can't Handle the Truth

July 13, 2020

photo by Kristina Flour, from Unsplash

The Canadian federal government has, once again, added to the legislation around vaping. The focus of this latest round has been on marketing and the government has made several changes. “It will now be prohibited to advertise vaping products in public spaces if the ads can be seen or heard by youth, whether in brick and mortar stores, online or other media channels.” The government announced at the same time that they are, “also considering additional regulatory measures that would further restrict the nicotine content of vaping products, further restrict flavours in vaping products, and require the vaping industry to provide information about their vaping products, including sales, ingredients, and research and development activities.”

Leaving aside the threat to kneecap the industry at a later date, what exactly do the new marketing restrictions mean and what will be the effect of new restrictions? Well, that depends on who you are. If you are a smoker then you will not have to look at those little placards near the till letting you know that a nicotine replacement option is available to you. As a former smoker myself, I can tell you that those incessant reminders are an annoyance. They stick in your head and get you wondering whether, even though all other efforts failed, this new ‘thing’ might actually work. Good news for resistant quitters then- there will be no more of that! Not at the till, not at the gas pump- nowhere in public will you be reminded that e-cigarettes exist in Canada unless you happen to walk past a vape shop and decide to look up at the sign (frosted windows will prevent you seeing inside). Bad news for convenience stores and gas stations that hoped to carry a reduced-risk product alongside their cigarettes though. It’s going to be hard to sell a product that Canadian legislation mandates be kept hidden and not mentioned. 

Adult vape shops have fared slightly better in this round but only because the industry is so used to being hammered that a bit more knocking about doesn’t faze us. “These changes will also require that any permitted ads displayed where youth are not permitted convey a health warning about vaping product harms.” So inside of your age restricted store, you can display permitted ads with an appropriate health warning. However- your social media channels will have to go. It appears the government’s newest idea to combat youth vaping is to Fight Club the whole thing. “Vaping? What vaping?” 

However much shops do seem to be taking this in stride, this will impact business. Like most businesses, shops rely on social media to communicate with existing and potential customers about the products that they sell. As this particular government’s schtick is reminding us what year it is, in the year 2020 a business without an online presence is, well, not exactly primed for growth or longevity unless they have an adequate local customer base. This new legislation will (naturally) only affect Canadian businesses, putting them at a considerable disadvantage. Our government is, in effect, advantaging businesses outside of Canada who can still promote their products on social media while we have to hope that customers arrive at our sites without any direction or prompting. But, since we know that Canadian kids only pay attention to Canadian Instagram, we can all sleep a little better knowing that they won’t be exposed to our dirty little pictures of atomizers and mods, tempting them into a life of debauchery. 

So why, you might wonder, aren't shop owners more outraged? It seems relatively quiet in industry circles. The short answer is that when you are prepared to be shot, a swift knock across the jaw doesn’t seem all that bad. Given all of the heated rhetoric, the threats, the ongoing media animosity, the recent lock-downs that affected most of the country- this release wasn’t as bad as it could have been. So they’ve all but sent us underground to sell our wares- at least we can still sell them. 

But that’s not the only reason for the relative calm: the industry has its sights set on comparative risk statements. There was some hope that this newest round of legislation might address that. Both the Canadian Vaping Association (CVA) and the Vaping Industry Trade Association (VITA) issued statements to that effect. The feeling was that we could absorb whatever the government threw at us next (because, contrary to media reporting, dealing with additional legislation and restrictions is the norm) if only they would allow us comparative risk statements. We knew that marketing was being reviewed, we just hoped for a little carrot with our stick.

So what is a comparative risk statement? Taking an example from Health Canada’s site: “Completely replacing cigarette smoking with vaping will reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.” More examples from the site include, “Vaping is less harmful than smoking. Many of the toxic and cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco and the tobacco smoke form when tobacco is burned.” Also mentioned on HC’s site, “Except for nicotine, vaping products typically contain: a fraction of the 7,000 chemicals found in tobacco smoke; lower levels of several of the harmful chemicals found in smoke.” All of these statements compare the risk of smoking with the risks from vaping, with vaping performing quite favourably. None of these statements, though objectively true, can be made by a vape shop owner, manufacturer, or reseller. 

If that surprises you, it may be because the media has done such a thorough job of making the vaping industry in Canada sound like the Wild West, without any rules. In fact, there are a lot of rules. Some of them are, quite frankly, absurd but none of them more so than you cannot make a true statement if it references the reduced risk of vaping as compared to smoking. The anti-tobacco harm reduction activists can make as many false statements as they like and our media is happy to amplify those messages. But the industry cannot advertise that “Vaping products and e-cigarettes deliver nicotine in a less harmful way than smoking cigarettes” or that, “These products may reduce health risks for smokers who can't or don't want to quit using nicotine” (from HC’s site again). And now, we can’t tell you about new or interesting products on social media either. It’s quite the plan this government has hatched.

When, eventually, the Canadian government and public health authorities return their attention to the nearly five million smokers in Canada, approximately 45,000 of whom will die this year from smoking-related illnesses, we hope that there is an industry left to serve them. If there isn’t or if, more likely, the industry is reduced to only its largest players, it won’t be for lack of fighting. We’re a scrappy bunch. It’s just unfortunate that even with the evidence on our side and the stakes so high that there had to be any battle at all.

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