In 2009, the federal government passed the aptly titled “Cracking Down on Tobacco Marketing Aimed at Youth Act.” Its primary objective was to curb a major spike in the consumption by young people of flavoured tobacco products that was fuelled by predatory marketing by the tobacco industry. The accompanying federal regulations were approved in 2010, but contained a disturbing exemption for menthol products because of the mistaken belief that youth didn’t like them.
Indeed, subsequent surveys revealed that menthol cigarettes were more popular among youth than adults. Surveys also revealed that young people who smoked menthol cigarettes consumed twice as much tobacco than those who smoked unflavoured cigarettes.
Faced with this explosive data, several provinces took matters into their own hands and closed the menthol loophole. The tobacco industry was quick to launch legal challenges, doubling down on the “menthol is an adult flavour” myth, and arguing that Health Canada’s lesser measure was sufficient.
Seven long years passed before the federal government finally acted to protect all Canadian youth from menthol-flavoured cigarettes and cigarillos. The new regulations also nullified one of the industry’s main arguments against provincial menthol bans.
Fast-forward 11 years, and it appears history could repeat itself. This time, however, the product is nicotine instead of tobacco. The circumstances are almost identical to those of 2010, with the federal government responding to an explosive increase in the number of youths using flavoured vaping products. The main difference is that, this time, we have the evidence showing menthol vaping products are extremely popular among youth. Canada also has two good domestic examples to follow: Both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have already banned all flavoured vaping products, with the sole exemption of tobacco flavours.
Yet there are a number of indications that Health Canada may have learnt nothing from its previous error. Exempting “mint/menthol” is two of three options presented in its “cost-assessment questionnaires” to manufacturers regarding its forthcoming vaping-flavour regulations, and at least one Liberal MP has publicly stated that “menthol, mint, and tobacco flavours would still be available.”
This, despite the clearly documented consequences of both the Trump administration’s 2020 partial ban on vaping flavours and JUUL’s removal of its flavoured pods — except for menthol. As a result, massive numbers of vapers simply switched to menthol-flavoured products.
An accumulation of studies has revealed that flavours are among the primary drivers of youth vaping, in addition to high nicotine content and the general youth appeal of vaping devices. Menthol is one of the most dangerous flavours, due to its physiological properties of soothing the throat, opening the airways, and masking the harsh taste of nicotine. Each of these fosters addiction and increases the risk of nicotine dependence.
Health Canada should learn from its mistakes, not repeat them. The national health regulator should follow the evidence, listen to the consensus of experts, and not take its cues from the vaping and tobacco industries. The federal government must provide effective and uniform protection of all Canadian youth from all flavoured vaping products.
A national survey of 3,000 young vapers commissioned earlier this year by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and analyzed by the Nova Scotia Lung Association revealed that mint/menthol is the second-most popular flavour among young users, tied with mango. In fact, Health Canada’s own studies show that the only vaping-flavour category that attracts exclusively adult smokers is tobacco.
How can Health Canada expect to protect youth from the enticement of flavoured vaping products, while allowing the second-most popular youth flavour to remain on the market? We can’t afford for the federal government to repeat past mistakes by turning a blind eye to mint/menthol flavourings. It’s time to give Canadian kids full protection from flavoured vaping products to help put an end to the youth-vaping epidemic.
Les Hagen is the executive director of Action on Smoking and Health. This op-ed includes contributions from: Sam Wong, president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, Disha Pancha, coordinator Campaign for a Smoke-Free Alberta, John McDonald, executive director of the Manitoba Tobacco Reduction Alliance, Flory Doucas, co-director of the Québec Coalition for Tobacco Control, Kevin Coady, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Alliance for the Control of Tobacco, Cynthia Callard, executive director for Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.
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