“We have no clue what [these chemicals] can do to your lungs,” said Mathieu Morissette, a researcher at the University Institute of Cardiology and Respirology of Quebec and an associate professor at Laval University in Quebec City.
“Those flavours were meant to be eaten, not to be inhaled, and basically, that is the main question we have right now: Are they safe to inhale?”
Morissette said that from a research perspective, “it’s really a huge puzzle if you want to address the question properly.”
While the federal health agency says vaping “produces an aerosol that may contain dozens of chemicals,” it only lists four ingredients when describing the contents of vaping vapour.
Companies are not required to put ingredient labels on vaping products in Canada.
“We don’t have any regulations on what chemicals are allowed to be used in electronic cigarettes or what chemicals could be banned,” Goniewicz said.
“[The industry is] changing so fast … figuring out what might be added to those products today that was not in the products that we tested five years ago, or even two years ago — that is a true challenge for scientists.”
It’s estimated there are more than 7,000 different flavouring chemicals in vaping liquids. While many are proven safe to eat, most of them have never been tested to evaluate their effect on lungs.
Goniewicz said the biggest question facing the vaping industry and health officials today is the long-term health consequences of e-cigarettes and liquids.
“People use the products on a daily basis. Kids puff on the device many times a day. They inhale high doses of nicotine. They inhale all those flavourings and additives,” he said.
“We don’t know what will happen with their lungs, their hearts, with their brains 10 years from now, 20 years from now.”
WATCH | Kids at a Toronto high school discuss how they feel about vaping:
Students in a Grade 9 health class at Richview Collegiate in Toronto talk about how they feel about the marketing and consequences of vaping. 2:13
Vaping regulations in Canada
Health Canada says it has seized more than 60,000 non-compliant products from vape shops and convenience stores across the country between July and October of this year.
Inspectors visited more than 1,000 locations across the country during that period, and more than three-quarters of the vape shops were found to be selling and promoting products that violate federal law, a Health Canada spokesperson said in a statement.
The most common violations were promoting child-friendly flavours and using testimonials to promote products.
Darryl Tempest, executive director of the Canadian Vaping Association, which represents more than 300 Canadian retail and online vaping businesses, said vaping is safer in regards to the “comparative risk” to cigarettes.
“Vaping is far less harmful,” he said. “It’s not benign, no one suggested it is. What it is, is a lot less harmful for the 7,000 chemicals that you ingest or that you inhale as you smoke.”
Tempest is calling for more marketing restrictions because of the uptick of youth use and said his organization welcomes more regulations from Health Canada.
Morisette said the current regulatory system in place in Canada is “backwards.”
“People got access to all of those e-liquids without any clue of what they could do to their lungs,” he said. “Now, we have hundreds of thousands of vapers in Canada inhaling things, [and] we don’t know what they can do to their lungs and the rest of their bodies.”
There are fewer restrictions on vaping devices in Canada than on tobacco, cannabis or even alcohol. Health Canada made e-cigarettes widely accessible based on an understanding that they could be used as a smoking cessation tool. Now, Canada is investigating almost a dozen possible or confirmed cases of vaping-related lung disease and the U.S. is tallying up thousands of lung injuries and over 40 deaths. 19:46
Vaping as a smoking cessation tool
Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, and there is little guidance available to people who want to quit vaping, unlike with smoking.
Health Canada’s advice to people about vaping remains the same: If you don’t vape, don’t start. But the federal health agency also says that replacing cigarette smoking with vaping “will reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals.”
“Vaping is less harmful than smoking,” Health Canada says on its website. “Switching from tobacco cigarettes to vaping will reduce your exposure to many toxic and cancer-causing chemicals.”
Goniewicz said he’s heard anecdotally from people who call the smoking cessation phone lines at the Roswell Park cancer centre in Buffalo asking for help to quit vaping.
“Right now, we don’t have any approved treatment on how to help them,” he said. “I don’t really know what to tell them.”