Dessy Pavlova

On May 26 2015, the Ontario government passed the Making Healthier Choices Act. Hiding behind the facade of helping families make healthier food choices, the bill focuses on banning electronic cigarettes, which includes vaporizers as well as flavoured tobacco products. While the bill focuses primarily on regulating e-cigarettes, the inclusion of vaporizers means that medical cannabis users could be affected by the legislation. Medical marijuana can still legally be smoked in Ontario, but not apparently not vaporized indoors or in city parks. This limits fair access for patients – even a vaporizer approved by Health Canada for medical use is included in the ban. Many patients have won the rights to vaporize in hospitals and educational institutions, so why is this new bill coming in not accommodating their right to vape?!

This also means that Toronto’s beloved vapor lounges may be under threat, as users will be prohibited from using e-cigarettes or vaporizers in any “enclosed public space” or on city property including parks. An implementation date regarding vapor establishments has yet to be set, which could allow for an appeal. Additionally, starting on October 1st, 2015, establishments will no longer be able to offer access to shisha tobacco products, and will prohibit the use of hookah or water pipes. As of January 1st, 2016, selling any flavoured tobacco products will be banned, and before the deadline of January 1st, 2018, so will menthol cigarettes.

Manitoba is implementing similar laws prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and ban use in most indoor and public places, but vaping isn’t put in the same category. The Manitoba law is more balanced, allowing for the smoking of e-cigarettes where they are sold, and allowing for bars to apply for licenses to have them. The Ontario government needs to consider how this bill will affect medical cannabis patients right to vaporize, including accessing vapor lounges and the sale of medical vaporizer equipment.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the potential impacts:

“Re-Normalizing” Indoor Smoking

With the new laws prohibiting tobacco and vapor stores from allowing a customer to view or handle a vaporizer prior to purchase, and barring merchants from speaking to the customer about the vaporizer in any way, there is no way for consumers to attain or apply fact-based knowledge. Bill 45 also outright limits the use of vaporizers in “enclosed public spaces” which could threaten the existence of vapor lounges altogether, alongside shisha bars and any other establishment licensed in Ontario.

Supposedly, one of the main concerns is that electronic cigarettes will “re-normalize” smoking indoors, under the argument that electronic cigarettes and vaporizers release a vapor that “looks like smoke.” Yet, the limitations on e-cigarettes and vaporizers may actually increase traditional smoking, with no available information on safer alternatives. The Electronic Cigarette Trade Association (ECTA) has been reviewing the collective information available, working with Public Health professionals and researchers, many of whom stand against Bill 45, maintaining that it limits health and support for less hazardous choices. Instead of offering credible fact-based research on the harms of electronic cigarettes, the government is simply barring access to knowledge about a potentially safer choice. With Bill 45 comes the prohibition of vaporizing indoors, which further ostracizes an already marginalized group that uses medical marijuana.

Creating a New Drug Trade

Like other prohibitionist legislation, Bill 45 will not dissuade people from using e-cigarettes or vaporizers, but will only serve to drive sale of these products underground. Bill 45 will not deter youth from seeking out illegal substances, but will ensure that access is unregulated, and potentially unsafe. By banning the sale of vape pens, the government of Ontario is inadvertently creating a black market. With illegal products, there is no age limit, no access to evidence-based information, and no assurance of the quality or purity of the product. Further, it limits the potential for reducing the harm of smoking, especially for medical marijuana patients.

Limiting Access Equals Healthier Choices?

Law professor David Sweanor, who has worked in health policy on tobacco and nicotine for 30 years, says that Bill 45 will ironically actually limit people’s ability to make healthier choices. Bill 45 prevents potential customers from viewing and holding an electronic cigarette prior to purchasing it. Yet removing this access will only prevent smokers from making an informed decision about whether to use electronic cigarettes, as people may be reluctant to spend money on a new device they haven’t had the chance to see. This measure is counterintuitive, as it will reduce the likelihood that smokers will switch to this safer method of ingestion. Unlike Manitoba’s proposed laws, there is no vaping allowed in any private clubs, paid venues or rented spaces allowed in Ontario – not even in vape shops. For medical marijuana users in Ontario, rolling up and taking a puff might just be a simpler solution than navigating the complexities of this new law.

Professor Sweanor compares e-cigarettes to safe injection sites for injection drug users — in both cases, it’s the delivery of the drug, not the drug itself, that is responsible for the biggest public health problem. Recognizing this requires that we increase, not limit, accessibility to safer methods of ingestion, and this is one place where the Making Healthier Choices Act falls short.

For patients that use medical marijuana in vapor lounges, or youth that seek flavoured tobacco, e-cigarettes, or hookahs, Bill 45 will not only limit access to credible information, but will have to resort to an underground, potentially unsafe and completely unregulated market for these now illicit products and places to indulge. With the limiting of access of safer alternatives, and the prohibition of safe places for users to vaporize, Bill 45 is likely to limit harm reduction instead of promote it.