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Controversial pro-vaping campaign prompts warning from health experts

Last Updated Feb 28, 2020 at 11:51 pm EST

Health experts are sounding the alarm on a massive pro-vaping campaign paid for by a tobacco company, calling it dangerous and misleading.

Imperial Tobacco Canada – whose parent company, British American Tobacco, sells Vype vaping products – has launched nationwide advertisements across multiple platforms and a dedicated website with the slogan “act on facts not fear.” In one ad, the words “vaping kills” are written – except the word “vaping” is crossed out and replaced with the word “hypocrisy” in red letters. The company claims the campaign is not about promoting vaping.

“We simply want Canadians to have the facts, which unfortunately are being distorted by anti-tobacco groups dressed up as health advocates,” said Eric Gagnon, head of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs with Imperial Tobacco.

“Essentially it’s misleading advertising,” said Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco. Perley is not surprised by the move, calling it part of the tobacco industry playbook.

“The industry has always had an operating principle over the years that doubt is their product. For decades, they tried to tell us that cigarettes were not harmful. Now they’re trying to tell us that vaping products are harmless or at least almost harmless.”

As of February 25th, 18 cases of vaping-associated lung illness have been reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Fourteen of those cases required hospital admission. There have been zero deaths.

But one major concern continues to be youth vaping. A study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found from 2017 to 2019, the use of e-cigarettes more than doubled among Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 – going from 11 per cent to 23 per cent. Health advocates say these ads could dangerously imply that vaping is not harmful. Gagnon denies it.

“That’s not at all what we say. The campaign never says that vaping is harmless,” he said. “What it says is that if you’re a smoker, it’s a less harmful alternative to smoking.”

Health Canada says it is monitoring the ads and will take enforcement action if any are found to be in violation of the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act. Though as it stands, because Vype products are not specifically mentioned, the company has managed to skirt the rules.

“If you look carefully at what they’re saying, they certainly have a team of lawyers involved with this and they don’t seem to be saying anything that is outright not true,” said Robert Schwartz, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He does point out that a Public Health England study referenced on the campaign’s website which “estimates that vapour products are at least 95 per cent less harmful than traditional cigarettes” has been widely debunked.

About the campaign, Schwartz has a simple message.

“The tobacco industry has lied out of both ends of its mouth for years and years. Don’t believe anything that the tobacco company – who own these vaping companies and has only to profit by selling and targeting young people who are not smokers – don’t believe them.”