Seven years after the first electronic cigarettes arrived in this country, Health Canada is finally taking steps to get a handle on the booming market for the controversial devices.
The department’s Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate proposes to award a contract, worth up to $232,000, to Montreal firm AC Nielsen to provide data on retail sales of e-cigarettes in Canada over the past two years, along with ongoing monthly totals.
In an email, Health Canada said the data will give the department up-to-date information on the number and type of e-cigarettes and nicotine-replacement therapy products sold in retail outlets, the companies involved and sales trends.
The information will support ongoing work by the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy “to track tobacco-related trends and emerging issues and commitment to continue the downward trend in smoking prevalence in Canada,” Health Canada said.
In 2012, 16 per cent of Canadians 15 and older smoked tobacco cigarettes, the lowest rate ever recorded and down from 25 per cent in 2001. Just 11 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds were smokers, half as many as in 2001.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat up a liquid containing nicotine or flavouring agents and dispense metered doses of mist to users.
The experience is akin to smoking but concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in the mist are up to 1,000 times lower than in tobacco smoke.
In the U.S., sales of e-cigarettes, which first entered the North American market in 2007, are approaching $2 billion U.S. a year, and are expected to top $10 billion a year globally by 2017.
Though e-cigarettes are widely available here, no reliable sales figures exist in Canada. But in 2012, eight per cent of Canadians 15 and older reported having tried smokeless tobacco products, which include e-cigarettes.
The devices exist in a regulatory grey area in this country. While they can be sold legally, Health Canada has not approved nicotine e-cigarettes. In 2009, it advised Canadians not to use them, saying they “may pose health risks and have not been fully evaluated for safety, quality and efficacy by Health Canada.”
More recently, the department has been cracking down on businesses offering e-cigarettes with nicotine cartridges, ordering scores to stop selling them.
Supporters tout e-cigarettes as smoking cessation devices and replacements for traditional tobacco cigarettes. But others fear they could attract new users to tobacco and undercut decades of effort to stigmatize and restrict smoking.
In a recent policy brief, the Canadian Public Health Association said the challenge is that there are limited data to substantiate any of the claims made about e-cigarettes.
The paucity of reliable evidence “favours a prudent approach” to managing the sale of e-cigarettes, the association said, arguing that existing controls on their sale should be maintained pending additional research into their risks and efficacy as smoking cessation devices.