How e-cigarettes have become a ‘very wild west’ industry in canada

On the third floor of a midtown Toronto low rise building, above a sushi restaurant and an acupuncture clinic, is a cramped, greyish room where anyone can walk in and freely buy something the Canadian government has deemed illegal.

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Looking more like an insurance office than a retail store, this is home to a roughly 7 foot tall black and opaque glass cabinet filled with e cigarettes that dispense nicotine devices strictly banned by Health Canada.

The cigarette shaped electronic devices convert a liquid nicotine mixture into vapour, delivering a smoke like hit of nicotine, without the actual smoke. In this back room, e smokers can choose from a variety of e liquid flavour cartridges from banana cream and Earl Grey tea to an ersatz version of du Maurier cigarettes and their preferred strength of nicotine. All without the dangerous cocktail of 4,000 chemicals, such as carbon monoxide and arsenic, found in real cigarettes.

We re very busy, says the salesman manning the AMK Trading showroom, who adds the electronic device has helped him to kick his own heavy smoking habit for the past three months.

E cigarettes have become an exploding industry, worth nearly $2 billion in the U.S. alone, a market that some analysts project will eventually surpass that of traditional cigarettes.

But here, Health Canada has not approved nicotine e cigarettes, creating a regulatory grey zone, forcing manufacturers and sellers to either flout the law, or steer clear of the country altogether.


  • Tobacco shares may be addictive
  • As more children use e cigarettes, heath officials worry it will lead to regular smoking

E cigarettes with non nicotine liquid another popular variety are legal. But no electronic cigarettes with nicotine have been authorized by Health Canada, the agency, which regulates nicotine under the Food and Drugs Act, said in an emailed statement. Currently, the importation, advertisement and sale of these products is illegal in Canada.

Unhealthy cigarettes you can buy at the corner store but to get a vastly safer nicotine product that has helped countless people finally quit smoking, you have to break the law with underground shops or online sellers. Ideally, everyone would simply quit nicotine, says Arthur Slutsky, a Toronto based pulmonary physician and co founder of a non electronic cigarette replacement device Nico Puff. But, he says, it makes no sense to block healthier alternatives to cigarettes the dirtiest delivery system for nicotine that we know of.

For those people who can t stop smoking, I don t think there is any question that switching to something, a cleaner nicotine delivery system, is definitely beneficial.

While Health Canada prohibits any advertising or sales, the underground e cigarette market is thriving. Andrea, a Toronto woman in her 30s who requested that her last name not be published, says the electronic devices have helped her to stay away from traditional cigarettes since she bought an e cigarette kit online a month ago.

I used to smoke about half a pack to a third of a pack a day, she says. I haven t bought a pack of cigarettes since then.

The e cigarette was created in 2003 by Chinese inventor Hon Lik. Most devices are sleek barrels, resembling a cigarette, cigar or pen. They typically use a battery powered heating element to convert a liquid made of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine (two common food additives) and nicotine into vapour. A puff (also called vaping ) produces something that feels like and resembles smoke similar enough to keep many smokers content but vanishes instantly, and leaves no odour.

E cigarettes are cheaper than real cigarettes, too. The kits range in price from $30 to as much as $100. A 30 millilitre bottle of e liquid which might last a pack a day smoker a month can cost around $15 to $20.

It s impossible to determine how large the market for e cigarettes is in Canada, with much of the market comprised of small, privately owned companies who don t report their sales.

We ve ended up with this very wild west sort of market, where we re keeping out the legitimate players, said University of Ottawa law professor David Sweanor, who works on tobacco control and health issues.

But in the U.S., where nicotine e cigarettes are legal, sales will approach $1.7 billion this year, according to Wells Fargo analysts. There, major tobacco firms such as Altria are getting in on the game, and e cigarette firms like NJOY have drawn high profile investors, such as Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook fame. Celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Katherine Heigl, have been flashing the devices at parties and on talk shows, lending a cool factor that has not been associated with public puffing in some time.

The public health community has found itself divided over e cigarettes, with some welcoming the potential to help smokers quit a far more dangerous habit, but some anti tobacco activists pointing to a lack of rigourous scientific study on the risks of e cigarettes or their success in weaning smokers off cigarettes.

You re talking about inhaling a chemical stew into your lungs, said Melodie Tilson, policy director for the Ottawa based Non Smokers Rights Association. It s not just water vapour. It s propylene glycol, which is generally recognized as safe for oral consumption, but it doesn t mean that it s safe for inhalation. Still, she says, Canadians should be able to legally buy e cigarettes to help them quit smoking, provided there are limits on things like marketing to minors. We don t think it makes sense that these products not be available, she said.

We ve ended up with this very wild west sort of market, where we re keeping out the legitimate players

Carl Phillips, an epidemiologist and former professor at the University of Alberta, where he researched tobacco harm reduction, says there is plenty of evidence showing that e cigarettes are 99% less harmful than smoking.

At least 25 studies over the years examined the chemical effects of e cigarettes, and we do know enough to be confident that they are low risk, he says.

Where it ranks among hazards, it s down in the range of eating french fries or eating dessert or not getting quite enough exercise, says Mr. Phillips, who is based in New Hampshire and is the scientific director for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke free Alternatives Association. Not necessarily good for you, but in the range of everyday hazards that we accept without too much worry.

He estimates that the device has helped millions of people to quit smoking worldwide, and thinks there is an urgency to Canada ending its ban on nicotine e cigarettes. About 37,000 Canadians every year die from smoking tobacco, according to the Lung Association.

By prohibiting a smoker from switching, Mr. Phillips says, you ve done more harm in terms of putting that person at risk of dying prematurely, than could possibly done by the actual use of the product itself.

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The e cigarette market is building with a speed that makes it difficult for study, and regulation, to keep up. But Canada s response has been particularly slow Last month, the European Union considered new regulations for e cigarettes, and opted for a lighter touch than the pharmaceutical style restrictions that were originally proposed. The American Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to regulate them under the Tobacco Act.

In Canada, however, the regulatory environment remains at least officially unresponsive, and hostile.

Health Canada warns Canadians not to purchase or use electronic smoking products, as these products may pose health risks and have not been fully eval
uated for safety, quality and efficacy by Health Canada, the government says.

You can smoke in the car, smoke in your bed, you could smoke it at the bar, without having the smell of it

Daniel David, president of the Electronic Cigarette Trade Association, says his own company, Evape, has received as many as six Health Canada cease and desist notices from Health Canada, but he has yet to face any repercussions.

He responds to each one with a letter arguing that he is not making any health claims or smoking cessation claims. He further argues that his product shouldn t fall under the Food and Drugs Act, because of the minimal nicotine content, and should instead be treated as a legal smoking alternative, he says.

I do send fairly detailed letters back really explaining our position, and usually what happens is they just drop it.

But the confusion and hefty expense to satisfy Health Canada s requirements have prompted other Canadian cigarette replacement companies to focus on markets beyond our borders, instead.

Montreal businessman Vincent DeBlois says he moved his company, Zen E Cigarettes, to Maine last year after getting into a legal tussle with Health Canada over the devices.

Dr. Slutsky says his product, Nico Puff, which is still in development but uses dry powder rather than electronics, doesn t have the thousands of chemicals cigarettes do. But the process to sell it in the Canadian market is too costly, and lengthy, at four to five years, he said. When the product is ready to launch, it won t be in Canada.

Something s wrong with that from a health perspective, he says.

Presumably Health Canada is anxious about studies that show minors are taking up vaping as well as adults, sparking worries that the devices could serve as a gateway for cigarette use. Last month, U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e cigarette rose from 4.7% in 2011 to 10% in 2012. But Mr. Phillips says there is no evidence that e cigarettes lead people to smoking. Teens, he said, are trying them perhaps instead of trying cigarettes because more people are becoming aware of the devices.

E cigarettes recently helped Steffen Hem quit smoking, but he too is cautious about the devices.

It doesn t give off bad breath, doesn t stick to your clothes, says the 29 year old Torontonian. You can smoke in the car, smoke in your bed, you could smoke it at the bar, without having the smell of it. And you could smoke it at your desk at work.

Mr. Hem used e cigarettes for about six months, slowly weaning himself off nicotine by gradually reducing the strength.

It just doesn t seem healthy The smokers, we don t know what we re smoking, when we re smoking the stuff. And if the government would actually regulate it, we would know what s in there.

When his e cigarette broke a month ago, he was able to finally go cold turkey it was his eighth time quitting his nicotine habit entirely since he picked up smoking at 14.

Health Canada is being incredibly risk averse when it comes to e cigarettes, says Mr. Sweanor. That cautiousness is not only keeping smokers away from a less harmful alternative, it is also holding back Canadian entrepreneurs from participating in a booming industry, said Mr. Sweanor, who figures the market here may be already worth more than $150 million.

The global market for cigarettes is $800 billion, and most of those smokers don t want cigarettes, says Mr. Sweanor.

We could have a self financing public health revolution, that could make billions of dollars. This could create companies that make Google and Facebook look poor by comparison. We have stymied the ability of Canadians to take part in this.

Pa. closer to banning e-cigarette use by kids, teens

Electronic cigarettes have been promoted as safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes because they do not contain tobacco or produce smoke. Instead, liquid nicotine, which is known to be highly addictive, flavors, or other chemicals are heated up through a battery powered device and vaporized. That vapor is then inhaled by the user.

«Because of the flavors and the novelty of it, kids can act like they re smoking, but they re not smoking, but what they re not realizing is that they re actually getting the nicotine,» Solobay said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said a recent survey found the use of electronic cigarettes doubled among middle school students from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 1.1 percent in 2012. For high schoolers, use jumped from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent, year over year.

All told, more than 1.78 million American tried e cigarettes in 2012, according to the CDC. The survey also found 1 in 5 middle school students who tried e cigarettes said they never smoked regular cigarettes an alarming stat, the CDC says.

CDC officials are also concerned nicotine could hinder adolescent brain development and lead to use of traditional cigarettes or other tobacco products.

«E cigarettes are perceived particularly by youth, but across many people as less harmful. So the questions we need to think about for youth is Is this a product that may encourage a non smoker to start using nicotine? In which case, it becomes more harmful, than if they remained abstinent,» said Dr. Andrew Strasser, who runs the University of Pennsylvania s Biobehavioral Smoking Laboratory.

«It may be viewed, for some segment of the youth population, as a gateway to using regular cigarettes,» he adds.

Strasser and his team have been studying the usage of electronic cigarettes. He agrees that the use of flavorings, which were all banned except for menthol in traditional cigarettes in 2009, could make electronic cigarettes more attractive to young people.

«There was significant evidence to show that the flavorings attracted youth. When people were starting to smoke, the flavorings minimized some of the harshness of the smoking experience, so in a sense, it made smoking easier,» he said. «It stands to reason that these flavorings would have similar attractiveness in an e cigarette to youth as well.»

As for what users are inhaling, Strasser and the CDC say information thus far has been scarce. The devices and fillers are not currently regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so researchers do not have a good handle on what is actually in the products.

«There is some research to suggest that there are low levels of toxins and, of course, nicotine, which is addictive. So we need to be aware that there is just not a sufficient amount of data to make strong conclusions. And being cautious and protective is a reasonable approach,» he said.

Blu electronic cigarettes, one of the most widely known e cigarettes makers, recommends children, breast feeding women, and those with health troubles like heart disease or diabetes not use their products, according to its website. They also list six key ingredients for their flavor cartridges distilled water, nicotine (in some cases), vegetable glycerin, natural flavors, artificial flavors and citric acid.

NBC10 reached out to Blu for comment on the new legislation. We are awaiting a response.

The FDA has said it would like to add electronic cigarettes to its purview with other tobacco products, but has yet to move forward.

The Pa. law now goes to the senate s Appropriations Committee for consideration. Solobay hopes to get the law through both sides of the General Assembly by early spring of 2014.

Should the law pass, Pa. would be following the footsteps of other states and municipalities who ve banned e cigarette use. Solobay says 28 other states have already passed similar laws.

New Jersey is one of three states to also include electronic cigarettes in its non smoking law which prohibits smoking inside workplaces, bars and restaurants.

City council members in New York City are considering adding e cigarettes to the city s current no smoking policy in public places.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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