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Exploding e-cigarettes? Here’s what Canadians need to know

The case of an Alberta teen who claims an e-cigarette exploded in his face is raising new questions surrounding regulations on a product that’s grown from a niche market to the mainstream.

The father of the 16-year-old Lethbridge teen told Global News his son suffered first and second-degree burns as a result of the explosion.

While explosions or fires from e-cigarettes are extremely rare they are not unheard of.

A report from the U.S. fire administration (USFA) found 25 separate incidents of explosion and fire involving e-cigarettes between 2009 and 2014, injuring nine people. Of those injuries two people suffered serious burns.

In Canada, the issue of who is in charge of regulating the growing use of e-cigarettes has been a challenge for the federal government, says David Hammond, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo.

“There is no specific federal legislation for e-cigarettes in Canada,” said Hammond. “Let’s be clear: it’s a very small number of devices [exploding/causing fire], but it is a dramatic example of the need for product standards…having some basic rules about how those are designed.”

Kate Ackerman, with the Electronic Cigarette Trade Association of Canada, said in an email to Global News that that e-cigarettes are “not a single product, but a category of thousands of products.”

“Some are not compatible with others,” Ackerman said. “Using non-compatible parts together, as with any electronic or electrical / mechanical device, dependent on battery power, can cause shorts, explosions, fires, or simply not work or work for a short time then develop an issue.”

The USFA report also found that many e-cigarettes come with USB ports for connecting the device to a power adapter provided by the e-cigarette manufacturer.

“Plugging an e-cigarette into a USB port or power adapter not supplied by the manufacturer may subject the battery to higher current than is safe, leading to thermal runaway that results in an explosion and/or fire,” the report read.

E-cigarettes have been touted as a less dangerous alternative for regular smokers trying to kick the habit. The battery-powered devices use a liquid to produce vapour, which is then inhaled. Some of the liquids are infused with nicotine, some aren’t.

Health Canada says on its website that e-cigarettes that are sold with e-juice containing nicotine, or which make health claims, fall under the Food and Drug Act, a law that requires Health Canada’s approval to import, advertise or sell the products.

“No electronic smoking product has yet been authorized for sale in Canada,” according to Health Canada.

But Hammond says there’s a caveat to that.

“If products don’t contain nicotine and they don’t make any sort of health claim about quitting then they can just be sold,” he said.

Instead the responsibility of regulating e-cigarettes has fallen to provincial governments, which means differences from province-to-province.

In Alberta, while there is currently no provincial legislation regarding the sale of e-cigarettes, several city councils, including Edmonton and Calgary, have passed bylaws to ban smoking e-cigarettes, or vaping, anywhere cigarette smoke is not allowed.

Last May, Nova Scotia became the first province to pass legislation treating e-cigarettes the same way as regular cigarettes including banning electronic cigarettes in indoor public spaces, barring anyone under the age of 19 from purchasing e-cigarettes, and prohibiting the display of e-cigarettes visible to minors.

British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Quebec have all passed similar legislation and other municipalities have limited e-cigarette use in public spaces (Vancouver) or municipal offices (Toronto). Ontario has passed legislation banning the sale cigarettes to minors under the age of 19 that went into effect Jan. 1. The Liberal government, however, delayed plans to ban vaping and the use of electronic cigarettes in public places.

The products have not only posed a challenge in terms of regulation but are also divisive amongst anti-tobacco advocates as some believe e-cigarettes perpetuate nicotine addiction, lead to smoking among teens and undermine smoking bans.

David Sweanor, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa, has spent 30 years as a public health advocate and sees e-cigs as an alternative to cigarettes.

“We’ve ended up with an industry that is largely self-regulated,” Sweanor said. “But it’s becoming a more controlled market over time. If anything the products have become much better.”

Sweanor says there is “no question” that e-cigarettes can be a helpful smoking aide.

“The reality is 37,000 Canadians are going to die this year as a direct result of cigarette smoking, most of them are saying, ‘I wish I didn’t smoke,’ but they are dependent on nicotine,” said Sweanor. “The whole idea of alternatives to cigarettes as a way of getting rid of cigarettes has absolutely enormous public health potential.”

Hammond says the issues with e-cigarette regulation will continue to be contentious.

“E-cigarettes almost certainly have some health risk, but that risk will be substantially lower than smoking cigarettes,” he said. “In terms of the overall health it will be determined by who uses them and for what.”

A statement to Global News from a Health Canada official pointed out the organization is currently investigating the issue.

“Health Canada is committed to moving forward with an evidence-based approach to vaping products that is tailored to the Canadian context. The Department is actively reviewing health and safety data and scientific studies.”

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