It’s illegal for Canada’s new smoking barons to sell their wares with lifestyle advertising or kid-friendly flavours – yet with the help of social-media influencers and viral marketing, many do
Birthday-cake flavoured vaping liquid. Instagram influencers paid to run contests sponsored by the e-cigarette industry. Pop-up lounges featuring young, attractive models giving out vape samples.
E-cigarette companies are targeting young people in Canada through advertisements that promote flavours, make health claims and push lifestyle benefits – all of which, critics say, flouts federal laws meant to prevent the promotion of vaping as a desirable activity for young people. It is an aggressive marketing push that federal regulators are struggling to stop, even as the rates of youth vaping climb.
E-cigarettes were legalized in Canada as a less harmful alternative to smoking, but as a condition, laws were put in place to help ensure the products didn’t fall into the hands of young non-smokers.
Under federal law, companies can produce any flavour they want, but they aren’t allowed to promote varieties that could appeal to young people, defined as under 18, such as those that taste like candy, dessert or soft drinks. It’s also against the law to engage in any lifestyle advertising, use testimonials or promote nicotine products using people, characters or animals.
But a Globe and Mail investigation found companies are advertising e-cigarette flavours that taste like ice cream, cookies and candy. They are paying social media influencers to promote products and host product giveaways. At pop-up events staffed by glamorous models, they are distributing vaping samples and encouraging visitors to pose with Instagram-friendly backdrops. The most flagrant abuse occurs on social media, where companies rely on viral campaigns, testimonials and powerful influencers to attract new customers.
Health Canada representatives say they have significantly increased compliance and enforcement activities around the sale and promotion of vaping products. In an e-mailed statement, a department spokesperson said inspectors seized more than 60,000 non-compliant products from specialty vape shops and convenience stores between July and October. Inspectors visited about 1,000 locations during that period.
More than three quarters of the specialty vape shops inspected by Health Canada were selling and promoting products that violate federal law, according to spokeswoman Maryse Durette. The most common violations were promoting child-friendly flavours and using testimonials to promote products. Under federal law, testimonials include any promotions that feature people, characters or animals.
Inspectors aim to visit 3,000 retailers by the end of the year. The department also has a unit that focuses on online retailers and so far, it has done 68 inspections.
Members of the e-cigarette industry interviewed by the Globe say they are complying with federal rules and are committed to ensuring their products don’t end up in the hands of minors. The industry says their target market is existing adult smokers.
“The majority of our membership … they’re very responsible, they’re complying with the act completely,” said Charles Pisano, vice-president of the Canadian Vaping Association, which represents more than 300 retail and online vaping businesses in Canada.
Carly Weeks – Globe and Mail – November 15, 2019.