Ottawa's misguided approach to e-cigarettes

Colby Cosh on why the government needs to take a deep breath

Why Ottawa needs to take a deep breath

Ina Fassbender/Reuters

I had cigarettes licked once. One day in the autumn of 2008, I went to a local clinic complaining of a persistent low-grade headache and, within a matter of a few confusing hours, I was looking at a CT scan of my very own bouncing-baby brain hemorrhage. A CT scan isn’t very compelling: it’s all white and grey blurs. The MRI photo taken later was much more impressive, a true wonder. In that photo, it looked as though I had inhaled a medium-sized cashew into the left lateral ventricle of my brain.

It was literally a small but urgent crisis, one requiring a few days of bed rest and groovy chill-out drugs while the doctors and nurses battled my blood pressure. When I left the hospital, I actually got less of a lecture about smoking than one does at a typical checkup. But it occurred to me that I had already been chemically quick-marched through the hardest part of quitting nicotine. It seemed like both hint and opportunity. For the first and only time since I took them up, I decided to try living without cigarettes.

Any writer-smoker can guess what came next. The first time I tried to rap out a column, I was helpless. Ideas for material receded beyond the fixed stars. Finishing a complete sentence was out of the question. One shopping trip later, I was smoking—and writing. I’m smoking right now. I call cigarettes “idea sticks” and I am as serious as a bullet about that. With them, I’m voluble and useful. Without them, I’m a slow-tongued, ham-thumbed mass of flesh whose most marketable abilities involve party tricks. Nicotine is a business input to me, as essential as drilling mud is to an oil well. I should probably be able to deduct it from my taxes.

Instead, my government wants to kill me. Or so I infer from its attitude toward “electronic cigarettes,” the trendy new devices that can deliver inhaled nicotine without the tar and other carcinogens that come with the consumption of a traditional idea stick. E-cigarettes are poorly tested alternatives to a device that is often fatal when used as directed, which suggests that regulation might have meagre benefit at best. But Health Canada has unconditionally forbidden the sale of e-cigarettes containing nicotine, and Canada Customs seizes nicotine cartridges when people are caught ordering them from abroad.

Here’s how the Canadian Press summarizes the logic: “Some experts worry that because they can deliver nicotine, e-cigarettes could perpetuate addictions in current smokers rather than helping them phase out their habit. They fear the tobacco industry is trying to find a replacement nicotine-delivery system.” (Sorry to interrupt, but why don’t we want the industry to find one?) It has been trying for a long time, but regulators have generally chosen to punish this instinct, instead of permitting, or even helping, the evil tobacco companies to come up with a less evil business model.

Nicotine, as such, is responsible for an unmeasurably small fraction of the deaths and disease caused by cigarettes. You can confirm this for yourself by looking into the research on nicotine patches and chewing gums. Health Canada has no problem with those. But like zillions of other addicts, I found existing nicotine-replacement nostrums hopeless as substitutes for the effects of a genuine cigarette, and scholars acknowledge that they have been a public-health disappointment.

Nicotine, when inhaled, is “biphasic,” having opposite effects on the nervous system, depending on how it is drawn into the lungs. An experienced smoker is unconsciously, almost magically, regulating his own mood with every breath. This trick cannot be performed with gum and patches. If it could, cigarettes might already be a quaint memory, instead of a continuing daily habit for four million Canadians.

I am not likely to give up cigarettes just because a potentially far safer and more effective alternative is withheld like dinner from a misbehaving child. I am limiting my tobacco intake, and watching my health better than I did in my 30s, but I’m not kidding myself. There is a lot we do not know about e-cigarettes, and because industrial providers have been discouraged from experimenting with them, manufacturing standards vary like crazy. I, for one, am willing to give them a try. I hope I don’t die waiting for permission.