NEW HAMBURG — Russell Daikens smoked for 50 years, a two-pack-a-day habit he knew would eventually kill him.
In January, the New Hamburg man found something he said has changed his life — electronic cigarettes, a cheaper, smoke-free alternative that looks, tastes and feels like tobacco cigarettes.
“These electronic cigarettes are the perfect answer,” said Daikens, a retired sailor who started smoking when he was 12 years old. “I’m done hacking and coughing, and haven’t touched a cigarette since.”
The only problem is, the sale of e-cigs is banned in Canada. To get his, Daikens and thousands of other Canadians order them online, often from the U.S., but risk having their orders confiscated by customs officials.
Battery-operated electronic cigarettes work by heating a liquid that contains common food additives and nicotine, and turning that into a water vapour. For smokers, it feels like smoking and delivers a bump of nicotine without the carcinogens in tobacco smoke.
Smoking kills an estimated 40,000 Canadians a year. But with e-cigs, there’s no harm of second-hand smoke, and the vapour is scent-free, so he’s smoked them in a hospital and in front of his doctor, Daikens said.
They’re legal in the U.S, and have helped more than a million Americans quit smoking since they became available in 2006, according to USA Today. South of the border, the electronic cigarette market is worth an estimated $500 million — still a small slice of the $100-billion U.S. tobacco market.
Daikens, meanwhile, was introduced to e-cigs while spending his winter down in Florida. He was instantly won over.
Non-nicotine cartridges for electronic cigarettes and other smoking cessation aids are available in Canada. But Health Canada says Canadians shouldn’t smoke the nicotine versions.
“Health Canada continues to advise Canadians not to purchase or use electronic smoking products, as these products may pose health risks and have not been evaluated for safety, quality and efficacy,” the agency said in an email.
The government warns that nicotine is highly addictive, and electronic cigarettes can lead to health problems caused by overdosing.
“Although these electronic smoking products may be marketed as a safer alternative to conventional tobacco products and, in some cases, as an aid to quitting smoking, electronic smoking products may pose risks such as nicotine poisoning and addiction,” Health Canada said, in a statement.
A University of Waterloo tobacco control expert warns there’s not enough known yet about the potential health risks of smoking e-cigs. And with many varieties on the market, testing them is increasingly complicated.
“It’s really unclear. There’s no infrastructure right now to be testing these products to determine their potential health risks,” said Prof. Geoffrey Fong.
On the surface, it would appear that quitting smoking in favour of e-cigs could be a good thing, he said. But it’s not clear what the overall health impact would be if they’re misused, and whether e-cigs might encourage non-smokers to develop addictive nicotine habits.
Some antismoking groups also worry that flavoured nicotine cartridges, which range from chocolate to apple pie, are designed to attract kids.
But Daikens suspects the real reason the sale of e-cigarettes remains banned has less to do with health and more to do with taxes — namely, the billions the government collects on tobacco products every year.
“They’re just tightening up on this. They don’t want people playing with this stuff,” Daikens said. “You’re up against Big Tobacco, and you’re up against the government, too, because they want their revenue.”
For now, no electronic smoking product is approved by Health Canada. But the equipment to smoke e-cigs is readily available over the internet, and some sellers sell directly to Canadians through online classifieds in a booming black market.
Health Canada says for any company to begin selling e-cigs here, they’d have to “submit scientific evidence demonstrating the product’s safety, efficacy and quality.”
But, ultimately, it’s up to Health Canada to answer the questions around e-cigs’ health impacts, Fong said.