By Derek James
Remember when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused of muzzling scientists? The CBC reported his government brought in “strict procedures around how its scientists are allowed to speak about their research to the media.”
These scientists claimed to “live in a culture of fear,” and the popular narrative was that the government was suppressing important scientific information and silencing critics.
Regardless of the accuracy of those stories, there is legitimate concern when a government appears to be impeding the public’s ability to access and share scientific information about matters of public interest.
Apparently, little has changed. The new federal government is now attempting to limit public access to scientific data in its proposed anti-vaping legislation, Bill S-5, which passed was introduced in November 2016.
Bill S-5 prohibits manufacturers or purveyors of e-cigarettes from sharing scientific information comparing the health effects of smoking traditional combustible tobacco cigarettes with vaping.
This ban is so broad that merely making Canadians aware of a peer-reviewed scientific journal article in a vape shop could result in a fine of up to $500,000 and two year prison term. This restriction will almost certainly attract constitutional scrutiny as a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
For those of us who don’t smoke or vape, it’s important to understand what is at stake.
E-cigarettes contain no tobacco and are not burned to produce smoke like traditional cigarettes. Instead, they are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid, producing a vapour that may contain nicotine. Vaping has repeatedly been shown to be an effective, consumer-driven, harm reduction tool.
To be clear, vaping is not completely without risk—nothing in life comes without risk—but it is far less harmful than smoking.
In 2015, Public Health England, an agency of the U.K. Department of Health, issued a press release announcing the results of an independent expert review that found that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful than smoking. They also found no evidence that vaping is a “gateway” to smoking. Finally, they warned that nearly half of the population was not aware of the health benefits of switching from smoking to vaping.
Yet, once Bill S-5 becomes law, anyone selling e-cigarettes in Canada would be breaking the law if they even provided this U.K. Department of Health report and its life-saving information to customers.
The gap between the U.K.’s and our federal government’s approaches to vaping could hardly be larger. The U.K. health authorities see vaping as a significant “public health opportunity” that could save millions of lives and billions of tax dollars.
By contrast, our federal government seems determined to keep Canadians ignorant of this important scientific information, discouraging smokers from abandoning a habit that will likely kill them.
Let’s be clear about what is at stake.
Health Canada estimates that smoking tobacco causes 40,000 deaths per year, with nearly 4.6 million Canadians continuing to smoke regularly. Despite some overall decrease in recent years, many Canadians, and particularly those from Canada’s most vulnerable communities, remain addicted and find it nearly impossible to quit.
Canada also has much to gain financially from smokers switching to e-cigarettes. Best estimates are that the annual healthcare cost per smoker in Canada is $3,071 for a total burden on our healthcare system of $17 billion every year. Most smokers would also save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of their own money each year by switching to much less harmful and cheaper e-cigarette technology.
One can only speculate why the government has adopted a strictly prohibitionist regime in Bill S-5, rather than a harm-reduction framework that would encourage smokers to switch to vaping.
But one thing is clear: while the U.K. believes that “there is no circumstance in which it is better for a smoker to continue smoking – a habit that kills one in every two and harms many others,” our federal government is determined to restrict the public’s access to life-saving information.
– Derek James From is a lawyer with the Canadian Constitution Foundation in Calgary. theccf.ca