Health groups take aim at flavoured vapes in new public awareness campaign

TORONTO — Two Canadian health advocacy groups launched a public awareness campaign Wednesday taking aim at flavoured vape products, with a pointed advertisement that highlights how the products are marketed to children.

The video features an actor posing as an ice cream truck vendor handing out an assortment of sweet-sounding flavours to parents and their children in a hidden camera-style spoof.

But as the salesman hands over the treats — with flavours that include vanilla mist, orange twist and cotton candy — he boasts that they're "infused with 100 per cent organic nicotine."

The clip wraps with a shot of e-liquid containers featuring the same flavours, and asks if selling nicotine-infused ice cream to kids isn't ok, "why is this?"

The Canadian Lung Association and the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada partnered to create the campaign, which launched on social media and will run on television over the next three months.

"There was no nicotine in the ice cream, of course," said lung association CEO Terry Dean. "But the whole idea was to point out the absurdity of these (vape) flavour offerings. We have over 7,000 out there in the market and clearly they're targeting youth."

The parents filmed for the advertisement, whose unvarnished expressions and comments are caught on video, react to the vendor with a mix of shock and outrage.

"Why would you give that to kids?" asks one woman incredulously.

Another parent asks skeptically if the inclusion of nicotine is good for kids.

"Like, I'm not a doctor," the man says. "So, I can't say for sure." 

Another parent can barely hide his anger, blowing up at the vendor.

"How dare you guys?" he shouts, over shots of parents throwing out the ice cream.

Lesley James, the senior manager of health policy at the Heart & Stroke Foundation, said with youth vaping on the rise the group felt it was important to create the campaign.

"We've taken a satirical approach but there's nothing funny about nicotine addiction," she said. "These products are marketed to look like candy or dessert. These appealing flavours are attractive to youth and that high nicotine content makes them addictive."

The groups want all levels of government to restrict the sale of vape flavours, with the lung association urging a limit on the number of flavours. Heart & Stroke advocates for a full ban.

Vaping proponents defend the products as a safer alternative to smoking that can help people quit the habit.

Both the lung association and Heart & Stroke hope the campaign sparks discussions amongst parents, educators and youth.

"We want them to have conversations and know this isn't just flavoured water," James said. "These are serious chemicals that can cause really harmful consequences."

A spokeswoman for Health Canada said promotion of vaping flavour products targeted at young people as depicted in the advertising campaign is already prohibited by the federal government.

"The Government of Canada recognizes that, despite these existing prohibitions, some companies will choose to operate outside the law," Maryse Durette said in a statement. 

"That is why Health Canada has significantly increased its compliance and enforcement activities to verify industry compliance with provisions intended to prevent the marketing of vaping flavours in ways that are appealing to young persons."

In December, the federal department proposed banning advertising of vaping products in spaces where young people can see them in a bid to rein in the rise of underage e-cigarette use.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu put forward the new rules that would prohibit vaping promotion in specialty shops, businesses and online platforms frequented by youth.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia has became the first province to ban sales of flavoured e-cigarettes and juices in regulatory changes that take effect April 1.

A spokeswoman for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province has taken action by banning in-store promotion of vapour products in gas bars and convenience stores as of Jan. 1.

"Minister Elliott is increasingly concerned about the prevalence and health consequences of youth vaping," Hayley Chazan said in a statement. "We expect to put forward additional regulations in the coming months."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press