Opinion: New ‘tobacco’ control bill is ill-conceived

Quebec’s Bill 44 — An Act to Bolster Tobacco Control, is both inappropriately titled and inappropriately formulated. It conflates very different products into a single category, gives draconian powers to governments and prohibits individuals from freely choosing for themselves.

As it stands, Quebec’s Tobacco Act (to be renamed the Tobacco Control Act) is designed to protect youth from the lure of smoking, to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke and to protect smokers from themselves by limiting their nicotine intake in various ways.

But the arrival of electronic cigarettes has changed the market for nicotine consumption and related non-nicotine consumption dramatically. In fact, “e-cigarette” is really a misnomer. Electronic devices vaporize, rather than burn, a liquid that may or may not contain nicotine. The absence of burning means that the production of tar, a substance that can cause severe health problems, is dramatically reduced and perhaps eliminated. Hence, users prefer the term “vaping” to “smoking.”

The central problem with Bill 44 is that it treats several distinct products as if they were identical. The second paragraph of the bill states that tobacco will now be defined to include “electronic cigarettes and any other devices of that nature that are put in one’s mouth to inhale any substance that may or may not contain nicotine, including their components and accessories.” However, vaping a flavoured vegetable liquid, whether nicotine-free or otherwise, is not the same as burning and inhaling tar and other smoking byproducts in high doses.

As a specific example of the draconian nature of the legislation, Section 50 empowers the authorities to levy a fine of up to $600,000, for a second offence, on individuals who either distribute “tobacco” (possibly nicotine-free vape juice) free of charge or who offer bulk discounts on its purchase. This latter provision would seem to preclude selling a 60-mL container of e-juice at less than twice the price of a 30-mL container. It might also preclude selling a high-concentration e-juice with twice the nicotine content of a low-concentration liquid at less than twice the price.

Bill 44 also proposes to extend the prohibition on smoking in bars to outdoor terrasses. And since vaping is now as serious as inhaling conventional tobacco, vapers will be limited to inhaling the fumes from passing motor vehicles, without having the right to inhale peaches-and-cream or toffee-and-hazelnut e-liquid.

The hospitality industry is currently conducting studies on the potential economic impact of the smoking and vaping ban on terrasses. But beyond the economics, a society that respects the rights of individuals to consume legal products should allow them to smoke and vape outdoors within the confines of a property belonging to a merchant.

This freedom need not imply that every bar permit smoking and vaping at all times on their terrasses. Some bars could allow smoking and vaping, subject to a permit, and some could not. Merchants could make their choices and advertise accordingly. Customers could then gravitate to bars with terrasses polluted only by automobiles, or bars with terrasses where they could also produce and inhale smoke or vapour. This would allow Quebec sellers and buyers the right of association without forcing non-smokers and non-vapers to inhale second-hand smoke or vapour.

In fact, such a flexible system might provide us with a model for further modifying tobacco control in such a way that the rights of all individuals in society are respected. In contrast, Bill 44, with its misguided definition of what constitutes tobacco, combined with ruinous penalties, models a paternalistic lack of respect for individual rights.

Ian Irvine is a professor of economics at Concordia University and an associate researcher with the Montreal Economic Institute. 

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