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May 07, 2014
The continuing e-cigarette debate: a burning issue or just smoke?

The debate surrounding electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes) continues to grow as more people begin to use the new smoking devices.

To date, Health Canada has issued cease and desist notices to 250 businesses selling nicotine-based e-cigarettes.  However, the government regulator has met with strong opposition from e-cigarette retailers as well as a number of advocacy organizations, including non-smokers’ rights and public health groups.

E-cigarettes are electronic inhalers designed as a substitute for tobacco smoking.  The mechanical devices use heating elements to vaporize a liquid solution, usually composed of propylene glycol, liquid nicotine and flavouring.   Powered by small batteries, the liquid solution is heated, creating a steam-like vapour, which is then inhaled, like a cigarette.

At issue is the question of whether e-cigarettes are the latest smoking fad or an effective smoking cessation product.  Users of the product argue that e-cigarettes can be used to gradually reduce the nicotine content at each fill-up, opening the potential for them to kick the nicotine habit altogether

“We have never seen any nicotine replacement product that has generated so much interest on behalf of smokers,” says France Damphousse, researcher with the Non-smokers Rights Association of Canada.

According to Ms. Damphousse, e-cigarettes present a safer alternative to regular cigarettes, which, in addition to nicotine, contain tar, chemicals and other harmful by-products of burning tobacco.  

“If you have a choice because you’re addicted [to nicotine], go for the safer product,” Ms. Damphousse argues.

Health Canada counters that, despite appearances, e-cigarettes “have potential for nicotine poisoning and addiction.”  As well, the heating of propylene glycol can result in irritation of the mouth and throat, it says.  However, it has not sought an outright ban of the product.

While many retailers and the Electronic Cigarette Trade Association argue that the bulk of their customers use the product to wean themselves off tobacco, groups like the Canadian Cancer Society have warned that the growing popularity of e-cigarettes among young people threatens to “re-normalize” smoking while increasing rates of nicotine addiction.

Their position has been supported by prominent health experts including Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang.

“In the last decade, we’ve made significant gains, especially in youth smoking.  We have a generation of young people growing up in an environment where non-smoking is much more the norm.  We run the risk of rolling that back,” he warns.

While medical research on e-cigarettes is limited, early indicators from New Zealand support the position of e-cigarettes being a smoking cessation product.  A clinical trial of 657 people in that country indicated that 7.3 per cent of e-cigarette users had quit the tobacco habit altogether after six months.  That compares to 5.8 per cent for users of the nicotine patch.

Whether they’re a smoking cessation product or a gentler way to consume nicotine, the popularity of e-cigarettes is soaring.   According to data published by Wells Fargo Securities, if current trends continue, the use of electronic devices “could surpass traditional cigarettes within the next decade.”

Until their status is clarified by Health Canada, it appears that electronic cigarettes will likely prove to be a claims challenge for plan sponsors and administrators.

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