Vaughn Palmer: Dix hopes hefty tax boost will clear smoke on youth vaping 'addiction'

Credit to Author: Gord Kurenoff| Date: Fri, 15 Nov 2019 01:47:48 +0000

VICTORIA — When the B.C. government took the first stab at restricting access to e-cigarettes five years ago, there were already grounds for concern about the growing practice of vaping.

“The difficulty is that we don’t know what is in vapour products, because they’re not regulated,” explained then-health minister Terry Lake in launching the legislative crackdown in the spring of 2015.

Some products already contained unregulated quantities of nicotine. Others had a range of chemicals, with poorly understood side effects. Plus they were being targeted to young people.

“They’re available almost everywhere, including convenience stores and online, and they come in a vast array of flavours from bubble gum to fruit, so clearly marketed at young people,” protested Lake.

“It may also serve as a gateway to smoking for young people,” added the B.C. Liberal health minister. “While adults can make a decision whether or not to partake, we think young people should be protected.”

The result was legislative amendments to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to youth under 19 and to ban advertising targeted at them.

For adults and young people alike, there was a ban on vaping on school grounds, health authority property, indoor public spaces and workplaces.

The health minister conceded that some restrictions might prove controversial, given the view that e-cigarettes were a boon for weaning smokers off a more dangerous product.

“When we first contemplated this bill about a year and a half ago,” Lake confided to the legislature, “we had vigorous debates with my ministry officials … about the positive impact e-cigarettes could have in getting people off of tobacco products and onto something perhaps safer, or off smoking or vaping altogether.”

But he insisted the precautionary principle should prevail: “It may be years before we know the health impacts of e-cigarettes.”

By way of further caution in the year 2015, he quoted the view of Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health:

“E-cigarettes have a tremendous potential to create a whole new generation of individuals dependent on nicotine, and they have substantial amounts of fine particulate matter, toxins and heavy metals at levels that can exceed those observed for conventional cigarettes.”

Adrian Dix, minister of health (at lectern), Rob Fleming, minister of education, and Carole James, minister of finance, announce new regulations for vaping to protect youth. DON CRAIG / B.C. government

Fast forward to the present day when fears are coming true about the harmful impact of e-cigarettes, particularly on young people.

On Thursday the New Democrats announced a much tougher crackdown on e-cigarettes.

A strict cap on nicotine content. Health warnings on the packages. More severe restrictions on advertising. A ban on flavours like cotton candy, targeted to youngsters. Sales of other flavoured products will be confined to specialty stores.

To further discourage consumption, the province is boosting the sales tax to 20 per cent on vaping devices and products. And to discourage vapers from switching, the tobacco tax will be boosted by two cents as well.

Together those two taxes are expected to bring in $35 million a year, more than enough to finance a new awareness campaign aimed at young people as well as tougher inspections and enforcement on retailers.

Presiding over the announcement was Health Minister Adrian Dix, joined by Education Minister Rob Fleming and Finance Minister Carole James.

“In a short number of years, vaping has shifted from being a smoking cessation tool for adults to an addictions trap for our youth,” Dix observed.

“Large manufacturers have embraced this new technology and have used flavours and advertising to introduce a new generation to very high levels of a very addictive drug, to nicotine … As a result, youth vaping rates are rising at an incredible rate.”

From tool for harm reduction to an addiction trap in just a few years — that’s a depressing story. Dix agreed that all governments and most authorities had “gotten it wrong” about e-cigarettes initially.

But he said he wasn’t blaming anyone in particular. He’d been a member of the legislature back in 2015 and had not given a cautionary speech about the dangers of addiction.

But the concern was already being flagged in some quarters, by Dr. Stanwick and others.

Governments could also have anticipated the tobacco industry’s modus operandi from a closer study of its history of targeting young people and understating the risks of new products like filter-tipped, menthol and low-tar cigarettes. (Allan Brandt’s The Cigarette Century: The Rise and Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America is the classic study.)

The industry is still at it, by the way. Just last June, Imperial Tobacco made a presentation to the legislature’s budget committee where it discounted the risks of vaping as a gateway to smoking and urged the government to go easy on taxes and restrictions on access for adult users.

But the main question with this week’s changes is whether they go far enough. The B.C. Liberals say not, with their critic, Todd Stone, urging an outright ban on all flavoured products.

Ironically, back in 2015, it was the New Democrats calling for restrictions on flavoured tobacco and the B.C. Liberals wanting to hold off.

Asked to explain the switch Thursday, Dix said an outright ban could drive adult consumers to the black market. The province is also hoping for a helping hand from Ottawa in adding further restrictions.

Let’s hope that will be enough. Discouraging to think that in another few years, yet another health minister could be announcing a tougher crackdown to stem a still-rising tide of vaping among young people.

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