Advocates call on Ontario to restrict vaping ads in corner stores to protect youth

Health advocates are calling on the Ontario government to restrict advertising of vaping products in convenience stores across the province to prevent a generation of young people from becoming addicted to nicotine.

Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, says the province needs to tighten laws on retail promotion of vaping products. His organization is urging Ontario to join other provinces in banning such ads.

“We don’t want a new generation of kids addicted to nicotine who then move onto smoking because of the omnipresence of promotion of vaping products in retail,” Perley told CBC Toronto on Wednesday.

Perley said the Ontario government has essentially legalize promotion of vaping products in retail stores.

It is illegal in Ontario to sell a vaping product to anyone under the age of 19. In May 2018, the federal government formally legalized vaping.

Ontario was set to ban the promotion of vaping products in convenience stores under the previous Liberal regime but the Doug Ford government paused regulations that were to come into effect in July 2018. It also revised regulations under the Smoke Free Ontario Act, 2017.

“At the provincial government level, we have unrestricted promotion in retail settings like convenience stores and gas bars. They can put up posters. They can put up freestanding promotions. All that was legalized last year,” Perley said.

“Retailers were given the specific ability to promote in store their products. We now have research that’s beginning to come on this matter and showing that when young people are asked what the role of these promotions is, they are more likely to vape and more likely to be interested in vaping if they see promotions in stores.”

Perley said cigarette advertising in stores was restricted years ago because of its influence on young people, but now, vaping advertising has taken its place. Manufacturers are placing ads on display covers and setting up freestanding displays. He said there is no limit.

“It normalizes the product,” he said. “Every kid that comes into a convenience store or goes into similar outlet at a gas bar gets the message that these are okay, these are not tobacco, they are safer than tobacco, they taste good because they have flavours.”

Flavours are the bait to get children to become addicted to nicotine, he said.

For its part, the Ontario government said it has no immediate plans to restrict advertising of vaping products in stores that are not specialty vape stores.

Province vows to continue monitoring evidence

“As information on vaping continues to grow, Ontario will continue to monitor the evidence and will take action, as appropriate,” David Jensen, spokesperson for the Ontario health ministry, said in an email on Wednesday.

Under the Smoke Free Ontario Act, retail outlets such as convenience stores or gas bars can promote, but not display, vapour products, as long as the promotion complies with federal legislation, specifically the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act.

The federal law bans any promotion of tobacco or vapour products, including advertising, that may be appealing to young people.

It also limits the promotion of vaping products by banning: lifestyle advertising; sponsorship promotion; giveaways of vaping products or branded merchandise; sale and promotion of vaping products that make the product appealing to youth, such as interesting shapes or sounds; promotion of certain flavours like candy, desserts, or soft drinks that may be appealing to youth; and product promotion by testimonials or endorsements.

Perley said the federal rules are loosely enforced and largely permissive and the term “appealing to young people,” has not been defined. Although there are federal inspectors who enforce the law, their numbers are small, he said.

“To expect the federal government to enforce anything that is going on in thousands of thousands of retail outlets in Ontario is just nonsense,” he added. “It won’t happen.”

‘Advertising is the most aggressive I have ever seen’

Robert Schwartz, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, is studying the use of e-cigarettes on 1,000 teens and young adults, including the effects of advertising and promotion on such use. He is also executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit.

Schwartz said tobacco companies are full or part owners of many of the most popular e-cigarette brands and they are going with trucks to university campuses to offer free samples.

“The advertising is the most aggressive I have ever seen. And we know that advertising works,” he said.

“There is enough evidence of the harms. Kids are picking up vapes, or e-cigarettes, because they are being advertised and promoted to them. The advertising is directed at young people, even though the e-cigarette companies say that it is not so,” he added.

“The tobacco companies know how to get people attracted to their products. Their products are highly addictive. Once they get them in, they are customers for life.”

Schwartz said both the provincial and federal governments should never have allowed the retail store advertising to occur. “They were warned,” he said.

According to France Gélinas, NDP MPP for the Nickel Belt and opposition health critic, the government should enact the regulations that were to come into effect in July 2018.

“We already have the laws, we already have the regulations written up in Ontario to ban advertising of vaping products,” she said.

“We need to protect our children. There is nothing good to be gained in having 50 per cent of our children addicted to nicotine … Right now, we are failing our kids.”

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