Electronic Cigarettes: Should We “Tar” Them With Same Brush As Regular Cigarettes?

Jacquelyn Shaw weighs the case for Canadian regulation of e-cigarettes in light of the FDA’s recent announcement


Encountering my first electronic or e-cigarette, I initially mistook it for an asthmatic inhaler. But the prominent cloud of smoke-like vapour was harder to mistake (see video), as was the futuristic-looking metal barrel – like something from Battlestar Galactica. I was, at the time, indoors at a Nova Scotia gym, adjacent to the children’s day-care area. Oxygen there is highly valued. Smoking outside is perfectly legal, but a gauntlet no-one ever seems to run. After several withering glances, the youthful offender desisted. Later, I wondered, though: had we been unfair?

In Nova Scotia, traditionally a smokers’ stronghold, e-cigarette ‘vaping’ arrived only a few years ago. This involves battery-powered vaporizing (rather than burning) of a nicotine solution flavoured like mint, chocolate, bubblegum or fruit. Seemingly, a breath mint and cigarette, all in one! Anecdotal user testimony (see comments) suggests genuine benefits for those unable to quit using nicotine patches, gum and steely will-power. E-cigarettes triumph by offering a nicotine fix in a soothingly cigarette-like form, with better flavour, cost, and control over (i.e., lowering or eliminating) the nicotine dose. Even non-quitters have noticed improved cough symptoms, cardiopulmonary function, and sense of smell. As well, indoor second-hand ‘smoke’ residues are lower. Like a heroin needle exchange, e-cigarettes seem an excellent harm reduction approach and quitting aid for hardcore smokers and their families.

Electronic_Cigarette_SmokingCurrently, Health Canada has done little in terms of regulation. It states that e-cigarettes can only legally be imported and sold in Canada if they are “without nicotine” and “without health claims” (e.g., that e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes, help in quitting, contain vitamins, etc.). In reality, any restriction is illusory, because e-cigarettes are refillable by design. Thus e-cigarette devices purchased with legal, nicotine-free solution can be—and are—refilled with nicotine-containing vials purchased separately online or in vapour shops. Health Canada has urged vendors to cease “importing, advertising or selling” e-cigarette products, but enforcement is seemingly absent.

Following US court decisions, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation over e-cigarettes as “drug delivery devices” had been stymied, but in a development in late April, the FDA announced new regulations that will regulate e-cigarettes as “tobacco products,” like cigarettes. As such, e-cigarettes will now require addiction warnings, stricter manufacturing standards, and FDA approval of any health claims. Sales—including internet sales—to minors will be prohibited. While US courts do not bind Canada, given frequent harmonization of Health Canada and FDA policies, Health Canada may have been waiting for the FDA’s new approach. It will be interesting to see if Canada follows suit.

Concern about e-cigarettes rests on three main pillars: toxicity issues, partially overlapping quality control concerns, and social harms. First, nicotine in e-cigarette liquid activates brain receptors, is rapidly absorbed, and can be extremely toxic at high doses. A tablespoon of e-cigarette solution (at 7-10% concentration)—far less than one refill vial—can kill an adult. Notably, US CDC poison control centres have logged a 300% escalation in e-cigarette poisonings since 2012. Many of these poisonings are in children drawn to the candy-like smell, flavours and colours. Other poisonings are in adults who spill the liquid on their skin. Also, while second-hand emissions are considerably reduced, 20% levels of the same carcinogens and toxins as regular cigarettes are still puffed out—acetic acid, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acetone, isoprene—suggesting it is inconsiderate to vape inside your local gym or daycare.

Admonishing adults to guard against toxicity risks like spillage, poisoning or second-hand emissions is fine if they know of these risks. However, reports suggest many have only learned of e-cigarette risks when there were symptoms of poisoning. While users seem to have received the message loudly and clearly that e-cigarettes may be healthier than smoking, the associated toxicity risks do not seem to have been communicated as effectively by all sellers.

Moreover, a lack of quality control results in easily-broken vials, no toxicity warning labels and no child-proof caps. Given non-standardized manufacturing in places like China, and possible unhygienic storage in Canada, various ‘extras’ may be present in the liquid. For example, the carcinogen nitrosamine and the toxin diethylene glycol have been found in the liquid, posing user risks.

Finally, public health officials fear e-cigarettes will promote nicotine addiction. This could be a gateway to “re-normalizing” the social harms of cigarette smoking for a new generation. To teens, e-cigarettes offer cheap, cool-looking, adult sophistication in candy flavours, without the ID card needed for regular cigarettes. Since the 1990s, Nova Scotia tobacco use fell from 33% to 18%. Concerns are that the visible lack of legal restriction on vaping where regular cigarettes are verboten could encourage a smoking resurgence.

Nova Scotia may soon lead the nation with legislation limiting e-cigarette use in public places. Given the above concerns, I support this move, in addition to enhanced regulation by Health Canada. Yet questions remain regarding how best to limit e-cigarettes harms for minors. Reports indicate a recent drop in US teen cigarette smoking is associated with increased marijuana smoking. At a time when pot enjoys wide toleration and cigarettes are less accessible to teens, I suspect a causal link. Are conditions likely to differ here in Canada? If the link is causal, regulating youth access to e-cigarettes too strictly could do more harm than good. Teens may turn to more accessible, equally health-damaging pot, and those smoking cigarettes would be denied an effective quitting aid.

E-cigarettes urgently warrant better regulation than the present system provides. The challenge is to find an appropriate balance between over-restriction and turning a blind eye.


Jacquelyn Shaw is a researcher/writer and NTE alumna with graduate training in both law and medical science.



  1. Just another way e-smoking saves you money because it can be fewer visits to your dentist’s office also means you can avoid costly medical services and operations to fix your smile.

  2. iamnoguff · · Reply

    I sincerely doubt that Nova Scotia will be leading the “Nation with legislation limiting e-cigarette use in public places” anytime soon. As I understand it, May 1st spring session has come and gone in Nova Scotia and Health Minister Leo Glavine did not present or submit his bill.

    Furthermore, e-liquid with nicotine is not classified as a tobacco product by Health Canada. Therefore, major changes in Canadian law would have to take place, prior to following suit and harmonizing with the USA’s FDA e-cigarette regulations.


  3. Although this is a decent article that takes a semi-objective look at the issue, there are glaring errors here: There are no E-liquids that contain 7-10% nicotine solution. Your calculation is out by a considerable margin; most E-liquid contains 0 – 2.4% (0 – 24mg/ml) nicotine in solution. Some offer up to 3.6% (36mg/ml), but none go any higher for E-liquid intended for direct consumption because any higher and it starts to get dangerous if not done in careful moderation. E-liquid in these normal concentrations may mildly irritate the skin if spilled and wiped off in a reasonable amount of time, but they cannot possibly poison unless it is allowed to be absorbed absorb into the skin for several minutes, and even then it would have to be at the higher end of the spectrum (24mg/ml) before there’s a chance it will cause illness. Furthermore, the Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut study is highly suspect, as numerous other independent studies (IVAQS, Clearstream, etc.) have shown toxins from second-hand vapor to be almost nil. Also, a 300% escalation in child poisonings is a disingenuous figure to bandy about, considering that the actual recorded numbers of poisonings from consumption are in the low double-digits worldwide, so 300% is next to meaningless, and the article you cited for this number is demonstrably a hit piece against E-cigarettes that uses disinformation and outright lies to scare people away from E-cigarettes.

    This article would have much more credibility if real studies were cited instead of media outlet hit pieces and scaremongering blog posts.

  4. Waffles Jones · · Reply

    Ms Shaw, I am very disappointed in your article. As a researcher I would have assumed that you would have used your skills to actually research this topic rather than use canned propaganda provided by the Anti-ECig establishment. Your tales of carcinogens, toxicity and social harms are not supported by scientifically peer reviewed articles. The levels of carcinogens/nitrosamines are minute (FDA study) and the same level as the patch, gum and inhalers provided in Nicotine Replacement therapy.The calls to Poison control is a concern but is sensationalized with stats that do not support it. Over the past 4 years there have been 2500 total calls over ECigs (no serious injuries) while 20000 calls a year have been about toothpaste, Over the counter drug and household products are top with unfortunate instances of children deaths recorded. The fear of re normalization and teen nicotine addiction are again not supported. US.UK and Canadian teen smoking has declined the past 3 years. A UK study shows no teen take up of cigarettes after using ECigs as well as non smokers. This fear of possible, if or maybe is actually stopping an amazing Tobacco Harm reduction strategy that will save thousands of smokers lives. I would suggest that you do some real research and write an article that will help save lives and not fear monger with unsubstantiated propaganda..

  5. Bruce Plumley · · Reply

    why leave a reply, you are not posting them! You best ask your university for your tuition back, they did not teach you how to do medical research, or much about the law.

  6. Ronna Penner · · Reply

    Jacquelyn, it is absolutely not true that a tablespoon of e-liquid will kill an adult! Spilling it on the skin does not create toxicity. If that were true I’d be dead. You are a researcher? Then do your research. A good researcher looks at both sides, not just the misinformation that is published by industries with an agenda.

    Here, I’ll do some research for you:

    Some interesting reading:

    What people fail to realize is that e-cigarettes are saving lives. There is no conspiracy to hook children into nicotine addiction. The flavours are what keeps adults vaping and not smoking. I don’t want to return to smoking but if all I could get was tobacco flavoured e-juice, I likely would. Adults love the flavours, yes, even bubble gum or other candy flavours. Of course the liquids need to be kept out of the hands of children, just like everything else.

    Tell me, why are deadly cigarettes not banned? I don’t think you need me or anyone to tell you because the answer is obvious. If it isn’t obvious to you then I’ll say it: money. The government has become quite dependant on the income from cigarette sales.

    Please, before publishing an article like this, think critically and do some research.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: