The Non-Smokers’ Rights Association is shutting down, but the fight to reduce smoking rates will continue

For decades, Canadian governments and anti-smoking advocates have been working to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use in this country. Their efforts have met a great deal of success: since the turn of the last century alone, the percentage of Canadian smokers over 15 years of age dropped from 25 per cent in 1999, to 16 per cent in 2012 — and the number continues to fall.

One organization that has greatly contributed to the decrease in smoking rates in this country is the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA). Founded in 1974, the NSRA led the charge to put picture-based health warnings on cigarette packs and has done a great deal of work to keep governments, and the public, informed about what Big Tobacco companies have been doing. As a result of these efforts, the NSRA won an award for Outstanding Organization from the American Cancer Society and was awarded the World Health Organization’s Gold Medal for tobacco control and the Canadian Cancer Society’s Award of Merit.

Unfortunately, reports indicate that the NSRA may be closing its doors in the near future, due to a lack of government funding. While The Canadian Vaping Association (The CVA) is sad to see such a strong advocate for public health go the way of the dodo bird, we firmly believe that the future of tobacco control rests not with organizations that receive millions of taxpayer dollars to bolster the government’s anti-smoking policies, but with private-sector innovations, such as electronic cigarettes, which are helping people reduce the harms caused by smoking.

When it came to harm-reduction measures, the NSRA was often skeptical. But in recent years, as the science has begun to catch up with vaping, the group started to come around to the potential for e-cigarettes to reduce smoking rates and improve public health. In March 2017, for example, the NSRA released a report titled, E-Cigarette Update: Secondhand Vapour Toxicity and Health Effects, which looked at the evidence on whether second-hand vapour poses a risk to bystanders, the way second-hand smoke does.

Although the report noted the need for more long-term studies on the health consequences of e-cigarette use, it was clear that “scientists do agree that because there is no combustion involved with vaping, e-cigarettes do not have the same toxic profile as cigarettes and other combustible tobacco products. Exposure to e-cigarette vapour is significantly less harmful than exposure to secondhand smoke.”

In its comparison of second-hand smoke with second-hand vapour, the report notes that with cigarettes, bystanders are exposed to both mainstream smoke (that which is exhaled by the smoker) and sidestream smoke (which is released from the end of a burning cigarette regardless of whether someone is puffing on it). E-cigarette vapour, on the other hand, is only released when someone is using the device. Vapour also dissipates within 30 seconds, while second-hand smoke lingers in the air for closer to 20 minutes. There is also a significant difference in the amount of chemicals released by smoking and vaping: the report notes that cigarettes release 4,000 chemicals, 69 of which are known carcinogens and 250 of which are regulated toxins, while e-cigarettes only produce 31 chemicals, at levels that are “9 – 450 times lower.”

According to the NSRA, “Studies on e-cigarette vapour typically demonstrate very low toxicity, and no study to date has directly correlated exposure with long-term adverse health outcomes for bystanders.” The report concludes that, “Exposure to e-cigarette vapour is significantly less harmful than exposure to SHS (second-hand smoke)” and that any toxic chemicals found in e-cigarettes can easily be addressed through regulation and technological innovation.

Despite the evidence showing the relatively low risks of second-hand vapour, the NSRA still called for vaping to be banned in indoor public places where smoking is prohibited, because it did not want to risk reducing the air quality of places that are already smoke free and because it was concerned that vaping indoors could re-normalize smoking.

While The CVA has conceded that banning vaping in indoor public spaces is inevitable, we believe that exceptions should be made for stores that predominantly sell vapour products. Unlike other workplaces that are free of both vapour and smoke, most specialty vape shops currently allow indoor vaping for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the fact that it is much easier for smokers to switch to e-cigarettes if someone can show them how to operate the devices and allow them to sample flavours, in order to find something that satisfies their cravings.

Furthermore, given the fact that most vape shop owners and employees are e-cigarette users themselves who have gotten into the business to help others quit smoking, and that the vast majority of customers are either smokers or vapers, allowing vaping in stores that predominantly sell e-cigarettes does not run the risk of normalizing the behaviour. Indeed, as the NSRA’s report notes, an enclosed vape shop does not pose a risk to people working in neighbouring businesses, because “e-cigarette vapour tends to evaporate quickly and … there is no evidence to suggest that it can travel between units the way SHS can.”

While The CVA mourns the loss of the NSRA, we will continue our efforts to ensure that adult Canadians have easy access to one of the most important harm-reduction technologies ever invented, as we work toward the goal of a smoke-free country.

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