Increasing taxes on vaping products could be part of a comprehensive approach to tackling the issue, particularly among teens and youths.
Alyssa Bedard, community health promoter at the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, says evidence has shown that higher prices from increased taxes “can be an effective strategy” in reducing smoking among both teens and adults.
But, Bedard says, that should only be part of a battle that includes a ban on flavoured vaping products, a ban on promotions, limiting the amount of nicotine available and “strong health warnings” such as those on tobacco products.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada is arguing for increased taxes on vaping products that would combat rising use among teenagers and create a revenue stream to tackle the costs of addiction.
The foundation has asked Premier Doug Ford’s government to include a tax hike between 20 and 30 per cent in its spring budget.
The group’s senior manager of public affairs says a higher cost would make the addictive products unaffordable for teenagers while still allowing adults to use them to quit smoking.
While research into vaping is still in the early stages, Liz Scanlon says decades of tobacco control studies have shown that taxation is a key tool to keep the products out of the hands of teens.
“When it comes to cigarette taxes, the research is there to demonstrate that kids are … more likely to cut back or quit when prices go up,” she says.
On a national level, Bedard says there has been “a significant increase in youth vaping,” the rate doubling between the 2016-17 school year and the 2018-19 school year.
In the most recent school year, according to the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, 20 per cent of students in grades 7 to 12 admitted to using vaping products within the previous 30 days.
About 90 per cent of them, she says, used vaping products containing nicotine.
“That is concerning,” Bedard says.
Nicotine “affects teen brains” that are still developing, such that they can become addicted to nicotine at lower levels than adults. It also affects teens’ memory and concentration, possibly resulting in cognition and behavioural issues.
It also can encourage some non-smokers to take up the smoking habit, she warns.
“If someone doesn’t smoke, they shouldn’t start vaping,” Bedard says.
“It’s not harmless. If you don’t smoke, don’t start vaping.”
According to the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, three per cent of students in grades 7 to 12 were cigarette smokers in 2018-19, with the trend decreasing over time from almost 30 per cent in 1999.
In the 2014-15 school year, the proportion of students in the health unit’s region who reported using cigarettes in the previous year was 12.6 per cent, higher than the provincial average of 8.6 per cent.
Ontario’s health minister has said she is growing increasingly concerned about the jump in youth vaping rates and has promised to announce further government action before the end of the month.
Christine Elliott says the government is considering a ban on flavoured vapes, as well as examining the nicotine content in the products and where they should be sold.
A provincial ban on in-store promotion of vapour products in gas bars and convenience stores came into effect on Jan. 1.
Three provinces — British Columbia, Alberta, and Prince Edward Island — have recently proposed or passed legislation to tax vape products.
When asked about the foundation’s proposal, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Finance said the government “does not speculate about taxation policy.”
Scanlon says the group is aware of the government’s fiscal challenges — and its pledge to eliminate Ontario’s $7.4-billion deficit — and that the tax could also create a stream of revenue to pay for vaping’s impacts on the health-care system.
“We don’t have really good cessation programs for vaping,” she admits. “There isn’t a lot of public education coming out right now. There isn’t a lot of prevention programming. Enforcement is a huge issue. There are lots of areas where addressing this is going to involve spending some money.”
Vaping proponents defend the product as a safer alternative to smoking that can help people quit the habit. Some have also expressed concern that hiking taxes could create a black market for the products.
“We certainly can’t make these products more expensive than cigarettes,” Scanlon says. “That’s not our aim from a policy perspective.”
With files from The Canadian Press