Monday, 13 November 2017

Getting the smoke out of cigarettes

While health departments have been gripped with the challenge of cannabis reform, another recreational-drug market has also become caught up in legal and market changes.

After years of turning a blind eye to illegal vape shops, the federal government has introduced legislation to legalize electronic cigarettes and other nicotine vaping devices. Bill S-5 (the proposed Tobacco and Vaping Products Act) was introduced in the Senate last November, and is now waiting for a decision by the House of Commons.

This law addresses only one of the new categories of nicotine delivery systems – those which use the nicotine which is derived from tobacco, but which do not use tobacco in its natural form. It does not respond to many of the new nicotine delivery systems which are under development, including the tobacco-heating mechanisms which have been launched by both British American Tobacco (i-glo) and Philip Morris International (IQOS) in the months since Bill S-5 was introduced.

Philip Morris International and its main competitor, British American Tobacco (BAT) recently had their new products analyzed by the same Canadian laboratory (Labstat) that developed the cigarette toxicity testing standards now written into Canada’s tobacco regulations. When tested for over 40 toxic chemicals, the heat-not-burn products still yielded dangerous amounts of carcinogens and other toxic substances, but at substantially lower levels than regular combustible cigarettes.

The head of Philip Morris International describes these products as “better choices” for smokers.  While it is a stretch to call them “better choices,” they are, for smokers, less bad choices than continuing to smoke. 

But for the moment these products lie in a kind of legal limbo – they are subject to the federal laws that apply to all tobacco products (like restrictions on advertising), but are not captured by the regulations which are more product-specific (like health warnings and bans on flavourings). They also reveal a vulnerability in Canada’s health laws. Unlike the United States, Australia, New Zealand and many other developed countries, there is no requirement for them to be approved by any government before they can be marketed in Canada.

The manufacturers of these new types of cigarettes are using private visits with policy-makers, news events and other means to encourage regulators that the health of Canadian smokers would benefit if S-5 were changed to set (less stringent) rules for marketing heated tobacco products.

We agree with the companies that Bill S-5 should be opened to respond to these new products. In return for the opportunity to sell e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes, the Canadian government could and should oblige the tobacco industry to phase out its most harmful products.

If tobacco and nicotine companies are offering less bad choices, why should they continue to be allowed to market the worst choice – the combustible cigarettes that kill 125 Canadians a day? It’s time to stop exempting tobacco manufacturers from consumer protection laws that ensure products are no more dangerous than necessary.

We propose that no combustible or heated tobacco product should be sold unless it meets the emission standards of these new products. This could not be done overnight, but it could be done. We suggest tobacco manufacturers have five years to improve their products or remove them from the market.

This would give the marketing edge that the companies claim they need to encourage smokers to switch to a less bad option. It is a much more prudent approach than granting their request to be able to use the tools of modern advertising and marketing to promote these brands– tools we know they would use to grow the number of people who use tobacco or other forms of nicotine.

It has been argued that forcing conventional cigarettes off the market will open the floodgates to contraband smokes. Contraband tobacco is a political and economic problem that has festered in the absence of political leadership. Phasing out combustible cigarettes could also be a springboard for the meaningful negotiation and effective enforcement necessary to wind down the contraband market.

Parliament has an opportunity in S-5 to ensure that nicotine, like gasoline and paint, is regulated so that most harmful products are phased out when better options become technically feasible.