For years now, provincial governments, public-health officials and anti-smoking groups have lobbied hard against electronic cigarettes, arguing they risk fueling a disastrous come-back in tobacco use.
But the latest statistics show a sharp drop in the percentage of Canadians who smoke, and some experts argue the most plausible explanation lies in the popularity of e-cigarette “vaping” – despite constant official discouragement of it.
That’s good news, they say, as vaping avoids most of the carcinogens packed into tobacco smoke.
“I would think that tobacco-control people would be celebrating. That’s more rapid (a drop) than would be predicted,” says Mark Tyndall, executive director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. “With increasing use of e-cigarettes, and decreasing use of tobacco, it totally makes sense that there has been substitution going on.”
It is a health trend that, if real, is being propelled by consumers and entrepreneurs, not authorities or advocacy groups, noted David Sweanor, an Ottawa lawyer and veteran of the anti-smoking movement, who vigorously supports the new technology.
“It is being done despite the anti-smoking establishment,” he said. “It isn’t that governments have been encouraging this … quite the opposite. Governments have been doing things to get in the way.”
But other experts argue the shrinking number of smokers is mostly the result of tax increases. They believe e-cigarettes play, at best, a minor role — highlighting a debate over the devices that continues to divide the public-health world.
The vapour emitted by electronic cigarettes gives users a hit of addictive nicotine, without the assortment of cancer-causing chemicals delivered by tobacco smoke.
Proponents say the machines are much safer than real cigarettes, while detractors argue they could re-normalize a frowned-upon habit, as well as act as a gateway to cigarettes for young people.
Smoking prevalence, after a long downward trend, sputtered in the late 2000s, with the rate among over-15 Canadians falling only slightly, from 19 per cent to 17 per cent, between 2005 and 2011, according to the Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey.
But then the rate tumbled to 13 per cent of the adult population in the following four years as vaping emerged as a widely used alternative, the survey’s recently released 2015 results suggest.
The federal-government poll estimates that 3.8 million people were smoking in 2015, 400,000 fewer than in 2013, and 713,000 were using e-cigarettes.
Most of those vapers still smoked tobacco, but about 107,000 were former smokers.
Sweanor argues that the only change of significance that might affect the rates in the last four years is the advent of e-cigarettes.
In fact, the Canadian trend mirrors what has been happening in the U.S., Britain and other countries where vaping has taken off, said Ken Warner, a public-health professor at the University of Michigan and leading researcher in the field.
“It appears there has been a very big increase in quitting, and it appears to be recent,” said Warner about the “unprecedented” drop in American rates.
But some of the leading lights in Canada’s anti-smoking movement are not convinced.
The latest survey data simply do not support a starring role for e-cigarettes, says Rob Cunningham, an analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.
Not only are most of the current vapers still smoking as well, but tax hikes of about $4 a carton federally and a similar amount in several provinces during the 2013-15 period provide a better clue as to why the rates are sliding, he said.
With increasing use of e-cigarettes, and decreasing use of tobacco, it totally makes sense that there has been substitution
In fact, in the age range where e-cigarettes are used the most, tobacco smoking has actually stayed level the last two years, not fallen, said Cunningham.
“That’s of concern, that the progress among 20-24 year olds appears to have stalled,” he said.
Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada, said the relatively few vapers in the survey who say they had quit smoking suggests the devices are having little impact.
“If vaping makes a difference, it is not reflected in this survey.”
But the single question asked about e-cigarettes means those results offer limited insight into just what role the devices play, said Pippa Beck, senior policy analyst with the Non-Smokers Rights Association.
She argues they should get some of the credit for less smoking, pointing to a recent American study which found e-cigarettes did better than approved drug therapy at helping people quit.