It all began with a quick errand to a nearby convenience store one evening on my way home.
As I waited to pay, a large, colourful advertisement caught my eye. “MAKE THE SWITCH,” it urged — to Juul, a company that sells nicotine-based vaping products.
The advertisement posted next to it was even more enticing: it offered new customers $25 off a vape starter kit.
I was shocked. Not because I had never seen a vape ad before, but because I realized that the teenaged girls standing behind me in line were fixated on these ads as well.
How did we get to this point?
We know that nicotine is a highly toxic and addictive substance. We have spent decades and billions of taxpayers’ dollars on anti-smoking campaigns and other major public health programs to reduce smoking and nicotine use.
And yet a recent survey by University of Waterloo Professor David Hammond revealed that vaping by young Canadians has almost doubled, rising from 8% to 15% between 2017 and 2018.
In fact, in his July 2019 testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, Stanford University professor Dr. Robert K. Jackler argued, “perhaps the most important contributor to the success of Juul among adolescents is how the product has been marketed. Juul’s early marketing was patently youth oriented. This stimulated a fad among adolescents, which led to viral peer to peer promotion of Juul on youth oriented social media, especially Instagram.”
It has been suggested that companies like Juul have had a serious impact on this epidemic of teen vaping through their advertising and marketing efforts.
In Canada, the problem right now is the lack of regulations that would restrict advertising or require companies to provide information about the presence or absence of nicotine in their vaping products. Proposed regulations on vaping products’ labelling and packaging were published in the Canada Gazette on June 22, 2019.
Before Parliament passed Bill S-5, the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, more than a year ago, I raised a number of concerns around the advertising and marketing of vaping products, especially to youth, during debates in the Senate. I even tried to amend the legislation to restrict all advertising until the regulations were written.
Instead, the government chose to wait and address these issues entirely through regulations. But the regulatory process is moving far too slowly.
Most regulations are drafted months after legislation becomes law. They are subject to public hearings and review by other departments before finally being published. There is no obligation to write regulations within a set time frame. Regulations can take years to be written, approved and published.
So, while the government co-ordinates, communicates, drafts, discusses and edits the regulations, industry has little to guide its own practices other than the bare bones legislation. As we wait, behaviours like the marketing of vapes and e-cigarettes to children become entrenched and normalized.
The very same marketing issue followed from the legalization of cannabis in 2018. Although the law prohibits the promotion of cannabis products to youth, it does allow for colours, logos, adult advertising and even non-cannabis product branding and sponsorship.
Health Canada has finally released regulations on cannabis edibles, beverages, topicals and extracts — products that are due to become available for purchase this winter — but these regulations are ambiguous and offer little detail for advertising, packaging and marketing. Once again, they leave most of the interpretation up to industry.
(The regulations, for instance, call for all edible cannabis to be sold in plain and child-resistant packaging, and require that they not appeal to youth. I imagine it will be difficult to meet a child who does not find gummy bears or cake pops appealing.)
The government’s unduly lengthy delay in regulating vapes and e-cigarettes will lead to the same serious outcome: the normalization of marketing nicotine-laden products to children.
So, what I happened upon one summer evening at a local convenience store makes me wonder: are we doing enough to keep these high-risk products away from our children?
And — if we aren’t — what sort of culture are we creating for them?
Senator Judith G. Seidman was deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology for the latter part of the 42nd Parliament. She represents the De la Durantaye division of Quebec.
This article appeared in the September 17, 2019 edition of the Toronto Star.