By Doug Neuman
“I want the tobacco companies to be scared, because we’re coming for them. We’ve come this far, and we’re not going to stop.”
Strong words, but certainly justified for St. Albert Catholic High School Grade 12 student Kayla Mariacci, who has been vocal within the school and beyond in her fight against flavoured tobacco.
So when the ban on flavoured tobacco came into effect June 1, along with an announcement from Alberta’s new Health Minister Sarah Hoffman, that menthol would now be included in the ban, she was understandably elated.
“It was a really uplifting moment for me,” she said. “I thought, ‘Yes! We’re making a difference!'”
Mariacci was one of several SACHS students involved with a North-America-wide campaign through the Evolvement organization, and she personally collected more than 50 signatures on a petition asking for a ban on flavoured tobacco. She even convinced several friends and family members to give up cigarettes.
Grade 11 student Alex Harrison-Reid was also active in lobbying for a ban, with his own personal experience with smoking helping to inform his decision to get involved.
He smoked for a period of almost one year before he decided it was a poor life choice and kicked the habit. And he pointed out he got started with menthol because it was more appealing to him.
“It didn’t taste disgusting, it tasted like cold mint, so I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not so bad!'” he said. “But the health risks involved with menthol are so much worse than with plain tobacco. It’s disgusting.”
Harrison-Reid said with one in three youth smokers choosing menthol products compared to one in 20 adults choosing menthol, adding menthol to the flavoured-tobacco ban is a no-brainer, and he’s happy to have been a part of it.
“It’s nice being part of a change for the better, especially because smoking is so prominent in youth,” he said. “It’s being brought into a negative light, which is good.”
Grade 10 student Holly Vogel didn’t have a lot of personal experience with tobacco when she decided to get involved, she just wanted to see a change within her school and among her peers.
“I see a lot of kids at this school that do smoke, and I guess it bothered me how they were targeting youth and children,” she said.
There are, of course, youth in St. Albert who are less enthusiastic about the flavoured tobacco ban.
Danny, a 16-year-old who was having a cigarette outside St. Albert Centre last week, didn’t want to give his last name because he said his parents don’t know he smokes, said the ban wasn’t likely to change his habits.
“I like the flavoured cigars but I smoke regular cigarettes, too,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to make me quit.”
He did say that the first tobacco products he used were fruit-flavoured, and said he might have been less likely to start if those weren’t available.
Angeline Webb is a spokesperson for the Canadian Cancer Society, and said including menthol in the flavoured-tobacco ban is a huge step in the right direction toward preventing preventable smoking-related disease like lung cancer.
She noted one-quarter of cancer deaths in Alberta are linked to tobacco use, and the vast majority of users start at a young age. Combine the appeal of mint flavour with the legitimate therapeutic benefits of menthol, and menthol smokers actually smoke about 50 per cent more than their non-menthol-smoking peers and are less likely to quit.
“Menthol is incredibly insidious, because it increases smoking initiation and nicotine addiction among youth, but also because it has medicinal purposes; it’s a bronchial dilator, and it increases nicotine absorption into the bloodstream,” she said.
While electronic cigarettes have been touted as a healthy alternative to smoking or a tool to help smokers quit, both Webb and the SACHS students have reservations about these products.
Webb concedes there is potential for e-cigarettes as a nicotine replacement aid, they are currently not a Health-Canada-approved nicotine replacement therapy and sales of the products are not regulated and as such present a consumer safety issue.
Furthermore, she explained one of the biggest driving forces in reducing smoking over the past several decades has been limiting the ability to smoke in public places and thereby making the practice less socially acceptable.
E-cigarettes, especially those designed to look like regular cigarettes complete with a glowing tip, may serve to once again normalize smoking behaviours being modelled for children.
“That has an impact on kids and youth, particularly in public places where they’re exposed to these products,” she said.
Harrison-Reid said he was concerned that like flavoured tobacco, flavoured vapour containing nicotine has the potential to serve as a gateway for tobacco use, and echoed Webb’s concerns that vaping may help smoking’s image.
“I would definitely call it a gateway,” he said. “It doesn’t look like a cigarette so it’s socially acceptable. I’ve seen people pull out a vapour pen in a restaurant and use it.”
Mariacci said she has seen the positive benefit of vaping – she has family members who are using electronic cigarettes to help them quit smoking – but she’s concerned about the health effects of the practice.
“There’s never a healthy way to smoke,” she said. “Maybe it’s healthier than sucking in tar, but it’s definitely a gateway.”
Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said while she had supported a decision to ban electronic cigarettes in schools when she was chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, the main reason was that school resource officers reported students were using them to smoke illegal products like hash oil.
“That was a decision I supported because there was a body of evidence to prove it was creating (an issue),” she said.
She said while the topic of electronic cigarettes is one the ministry is considering, she’s not prepared yet to make any decisions, saying she had been on the job less than two weeks and was still being briefed on a variety of issues.
“We’re going to keep looking at the evidence not just on vapourizers and electronic cigarettes, but on a variety of different products, and working with partners in the community to ensure Albertans have a great quality of life,” Hoffman said.