≡ Menu

Science of Electronic Cigarettes

Canada: E-Cig Regulatory Environment

Canada Flag

Canadian Confusion Over E-Cig Regulations

Conflicting laws in different provinces throughout Canada have created considerable confusion about the status of e-cigarettes and other tobacco alternatives in the country. Unfortunately, some health officials in Canada are exploiting the vague nature of existing laws to mislead consumers into thinking that e-cigs are prohibited. Their tactics are also intended to scare away potential distributors from setting up shop. Health Canada, the government body responsible for promoting public health, has claimed, “E-cigarettes may not be imported, advertised or sold,” but legal researcher Rachel Steen has penned a retort supporting the growing perception that Health Canada’s claims have no legal basis.

Today, Canada essentially has a two-tier system in which there are few federal regulations regarding e-cigs without nicotine, but nicotine-containing tobacco alternatives fall into murky legal territory. Health Canada has argued that e-cigs with nicotine should be classified as medicines and therefore “require market authorization [from Health Canada as medicines] before they can be imported, advertised or sold in Canada.” This is the current reality for nicotine patches and gums, which are legally classified as medicines yet have limited success rates when it comes to helping people quit smoking.

E-cig proponents such as Rachel Steen assert that Canadian law currently classifies e-cig hardware and fluids containing nicotine as consumer products. They also argue that the federal Tobacco Act exempts e-cigs from regulations involving tobacco products. Health Canada has no authority to decide which category e-cigs fall under.

Regardless of the nonexistence of laws banning e-cigs with nicotine, Health Canada continues to bully vendors into not carrying nicotine refills for e-cigs. Legal threats against vendors who defy Health Canada have not been pursued and would likely not stand in courts, and there’s a good chance that’s where final decisions will be made.

In 2013, medical reporter Helen Branswell wrote a highly publicized article entitled “E-cigarettes could hook new generation on nicotine, medical journal warns.” The story circulated on reputable news sources like CTV News, the Vancouver Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press and echoed Health Canada’s dubious claim that “Under Canadian law, it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes with nicotine.” The article goes on to portray shops selling these products as criminal operations. Branswell failed to cite any specific law but did reference a five-year-old Health Canada advisory document, which raises an interesting question: Why is Health Canada obsessed with perpetuating a myth?

Tobacco tax revenues make up a large chunk of the government’s income, so allowing smokers to transition to e-cigs means less money for Health Canada. Traditional tobacco producers and pharmaceutical companies that make smoking-cessation products also have an interest in stifling the e-cig market as tobacco alternatives could cut into their profits. These industries are far more influential, so they contribute to the hostile environment for e-cigs.

What’s most frustrating about the situation is that Health Canada seems to recognize that e-cigs can have potential public health benefits, yet they somehow use this fact to suppress their distribution. Their actions seem politically motivated, and cigarette smokers are suffering the consequences because they have no access to these potentially safer alternatives. More options will allow consumers to make wiser health decisions, yet restricting e-cigs will only keep tobacco users trapped in a deadly addiction.