Toronto exploring mandatory licence for retailers selling vaping, e-cigarette products

City officials are now one step closer toward licensing retailers who sell vaping and e-cigarette products, amid growing concern about the devices’ popularity and health risks.

On Monday morning, the general government and licensing committee officially signed off on new recommendations requiring businesses selling vaping products to buy a licence from the city — if council gives a final stamp of approval later this month.

“While vapour products … are less harmful than combustible tobacco cigarettes, they are not without risk,” wrote Carleton Grant, executive director of the city’s Municipal Licensing and Standards department, in a report outlining his recommendations.

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of vaping product retailers across Toronto, with more than 1,400 known retailers, including 78 specialty stores, Grant’s report notes.

He proposes adopting the same fee structure for retailers selling vaping products as what’s already in place for stores selling tobacco goods — an initial application fee of around $645 and a renewal fee of roughly $315, adjusted annually.

The recommendations come amid the growing popularity of the products and increasing awareness of the health risks.

“Vaping is not benign,” said Robert Schwartz, a professor in the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit.

Recently, more people suffering from severe lung illnesses tied to vaping have been identified by medical professionals, with more than 1,000 cases now reported across North America.

In the U.S., the count includes 18 deaths in 15 states, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said there doesn’t appear to be one product or substance involved in all of the cases.

Here in Canada, a Quebec resident has been diagnosed as the country’s first case of a severe vaping-related breathing illness.

“Anybody who isn’t already a combustible cigarette smoker should never think about vaping,” Schwartz said.

TPH wants more regulation from province

With those concerns in mind, officials from Toronto Public Health (TPH) back more oversight of vaping products.

Without a licensing system in place, there’s no “reliable” way for TPH staff to track and inspect all retailers to ensure they’re complying with the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, which regulates vapour products containing nicotine, Grant’s report notes.

If adopted, the changes would put Toronto in line with Hamilton and London, which both started requiring licences for vaping retailers back in 2017.

“The licensing, and our work in the city — this is an important piece, but it’s just one of many,” said board of health chair Joe Cressy on Monday.

Cressy stressed that five years ago, the board first called for more provincial regulations around e-cigarettes to restrict advertising targeting young people and to limit the type of flavours, particularly those that are candy-flavoured, which can be particularly appealing to youth.

“It’s long past time that the provincial government moves on that,” he said.

Right now, Ontarians are bombarded with vaping advertising, Schwartz noted. “You see it all over the place,” he said. “You see it in subway stations, on billboards, on news broadcasts.”

Under the previous Liberal regime, the province was set to ban the promotion of vaping products in convenience stores, but Premier Doug Ford’s government hit pause on changes that were slated for July 2018.

“This government cannot go backwards when it comes to vaping. Our kids’ health depends on it,” said interim Liberal Leader John Fraser in remarks shared on Twitter.

He called on the Ford government to ban in-store promotion of vaping products and the sale of flavoured vapes, and pass regulations requiring clear signage wherever products are sold, outlining the dangers of vaping.

While the province hasn’t outlined plans for any such regulatory changes, ministry of health spokesperson David Jensen told CBC Toronto on Monday that, as a first step, the ministry is now requiring hospitals to share details about instances of vaping-related severe lung illnesses.

“This information was not previously available to the ministry,” he said in a statement. “We are also engaging with experts to identify possible evidence-based solutions and are considering all options to protect our youth from the potential dangers of vaping.”

Toronto’s top doctor said provincial action needs to be taken to protect public health.

“When we look at substance use — and that includes vaping — the best evidence out there suggests what needs to be done is having it available legally … and to regulate them strongly,” said Dr. Eileen De Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health.

“That’s how you actually mitigate the harms associated with substances.”

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