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No changes promised to outdated tobacco law despite unflattering internal review

OTTAWA — The federal law regulating tobacco and vaping products hasn't kept up with the rapidly changing menu of nicotine items on the market, prompting an anti-smoking group to lament the lack of legislative updates.

An internal review of the government's anti-tobacco legislation shows the federal approach to curb nicotine use in Canada isn't working, but Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada say the Liberals have promised no action to fix it.A smoker puts out a cigarette in a public ash tray in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 31, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The federal law regulating tobacco and vaping products hasn't kept up with the rapidly changing menu of nicotine items on the market, prompting an anti-smoking group to lament the lack of legislative updates.

Addictions Minister Ya'ara Saks quietly tabled an internal review of the anti-tobacco legislation at the end of the spring sitting of Parliament, just before MPs returned to their ridings for the summer.

It found that "significant progress" has been made to address tobacco-related death and disease in Canada, and recommended no amendments to the legislation.

But the review also shows the rate of people who quit smoking has remained more or less the same for the last 20 years.

Meanwhile, rates of youth vaping have more than doubled since the legislation was expanded to regulate vaping in 2018, and new nicotine products have come on the market.

"People who grew up smoking cigarettes continue to smoke cigarettes," said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. "Younger generations are shifting from cigarettes to vaping products, and they're doing so in greater numbers."

The report landed during an ongoing spat between the tobacco industry and Health Minister Mark Holland, who has vowed to prevent more Canadians from becoming addicted.

Part of the problem is the government has continued to play "whack-a-mole" with new nicotine products ever since the legislation was expanded to include vaping in 2018, said University of Waterloo professor David Hammond.

"We always end up with sort of a government scrambling to catch up to the most recent products and finding that they're regulated through a slightly different avenue," said Hammond, who studies tobacco and vaping regulation.

"We're left with a situation where we have experienced an increase in nicotine uptake among young people for the first time in decades."

The legislation is intended to allow people who smoke to make the switch to a less harmful habit, like vaping, while protecting young people and non-smokers from becoming addicted.

"I don't challenge the government's ... sincerity and efforts, but quite clearly, they haven't achieved the balance," said Hammond.

The report did highlight some potential areas of improvement, Saks' office said in a statement Monday, and the minister's staff plan to continue to refine their strategy accordingly.

"Based on our experience with reducing youth use of tobacco, we know that comprehensive measures can impact youth uptake and use of vaping products," the minister's office said.

An advocacy group for people who have used vaping to break free of cigarettes called Rights4Vapers launched several letter-writing campaigns in an effort to preserve access to the tool they say best helped them quit.

The government has had similar struggles in regulating newer nicotine products like Zonnic, a pouch that users place between their gums and upper lip.

Holland promised a major crackdown on the pouches, which were approved by Health Canada to help people quit smoking but have also been used recreationally.

The pouches are subject to different rules than vape and tobacco products, and the minister was granted new powers in the recently passed budget bill to pull them off shelves if he considers them harmful and not being used to quit smoking.

Hammond said ideally all nicotine products would be regulated by a single, coherent regime.

Vaping has proven to be a helpful tool for some to quit cigarettes, Holland said last week when the report was tabled. But he added it is important to make sure that's what they're used for, and not as "another vector for addiction."

As for why the legislation isn't being updated, Holland said he believes it's best to target the industry for now.

"If we're going to help people, I think we have to go after the industry, really expose the tactics that they use to addict people, how they go after young people," Holland said.

"I want to see us take every action that we can, but we can't just take action for the sake of taking action. It needs to be informed by evidence."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2024.

The Canadian Press