Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

E-cigarette trend worries health officials

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The potential proliferation of e-cigarettes in Manitoba worries the province's chief public health officer.

Dr. Michael Routledge said the subject has also been raised recently at national meetings of health officials.

The main concern is that the popularization of e-cigarettes could make the act of smoking cool once again and spawn a whole new generation of smokers.

"For a long time tobacco was normalized in our society, and the (health) impacts of that were devastating. We're still dealing with that," Routledge said in an interview.

He is particularly concerned about the marketing of flavoured e-cigarettes, which are used to entice non-smokers to the products, particularly adolescents.

"If the purpose is to use it as a smoking cessation aid, I don't personally see why you would have to have it flavoured," he said.

Adolescents could get hooked on nicotine through e-cigarettes and then go on to smoke regular cigarettes, he said. "There's some serious concerns around these products."

Since e-cigarettes are untested and unregulated, their health risks are unknown, Routledge said.

"My best guess is that using an e-cigarette is safer for you than it is to smoke," he said.

But he quickly added that if smokers want to quit, there already are regulated products available, such as nicotine gum and the patch.

E-cigarettes were a hot topic this week when 400 tobacco control experts from across Canada and around the world gathered in Ottawa for the National Conference on Tobacco or Health.

A concern expressed at the conference was the fact the products are not regulated in Canada.

Melodie Tilson, director of policy for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, says the country's "Wild West" approach "just doesn't work."

"We need to ensure that e-cigarette policy minimizes the risks by having manufacturing standards, clear and accurate labelling that informs the public of health benefits and risks, and regulatory controls similar to those on tobacco products -- all while maximizing the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a quit aid," she said.

There is no strong evidence yet to prove e-cigarettes are an effective smoking cessation aid. Meanwhile, their potential long-term health risks are unknown.

"The main concern... is that they're really untested, and there is no data that supports them, either for recreational or medicinal use, in the case of a nicotine replacement," said Tracy Fehr, tobacco reduction co-ordinator with the Manitoba Lung Association.

"If they want to be used as a nicotine replacement product, they would need to be regulated like any other product of that kind."

Fehr, like Routledge, is worried the introduction of e-cigarettes could lead to a huge uptake in smoking -- or at least in the use of nicotine -- among youths.

An estimated 15 per cent of kids aged 13 to 17 in Canada have tried tobacco. From 2010 to 2011, e-cigarette usage doubled south of the border.

"It's the kind of trend that we're watching and feeling not very comfortable with," said Fehr.

--Larry Kusch

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 D10

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