When I walk into my local major chain grocery store, one of the first fridges I see is filled with bright, fun cans, chock full of sugar and alcohol. One in particular looks just like those red, white, and blue rocket popsicles, and hits me in the nostalgia.

They share the fridge with rows of stylized kombuchas, beckoning to shoppers in an all ages space to take their pick. You can also buy cigs there of course, tucked out of sight these days, but like an old timey speak easy, say the right words and show the right ID, and they open the secret doors. This feels normal now, though I’m old enough to remember when smokes were not only proudly displayed at pharmacy check-outs, but also sponsored just about all our noteworthy festivals.

We embrace vice in Montreal. We embrace it because we believe in joie de vivre and personal freedoms. We love the caché that sexy trinity gives us, and in normal times, we love the tourist dollars that come with it. From our drinking age, to our legal contact dances, Montreal is a haven for adult entertainment in the broadest sense of the term.

Typical Quebec grocery store fridge with fruity alcohol (Photo by Dawn McSweeney)

That’s why it seems so weird that e-cigarettes are slated to come under stricter regulations. Quebec is moving to limit nicotine content in cartridges and liquids to 20%, while also banning flavors. This means that adults will only be able to choose between flavorless, menthol, or tobacco flavored, to pair with their hard root beer.

Before the pandemic, the news was briefly filled with teenagers getting sick from what turned out to be black market THC and CBD vapes made with vitamin E, and who knows what else. While broken telephone caused panic about adults smoking regulated nicotine products, it also seems to have contributed to Quebec’s decision to ban THC and CBD vape products moving forward while other provinces allow them.

During the lockdown, vape shops were considered non-essential. They are the exclusive retailers of e-liquid, refillable vape pens, empty pods, and various bits so you can keep your vape up and running. They often have custom flavors and products that set them apart from each other, creating niche markets.

While plenty of small businesses in the same boat were able to mitigate some of their losses by moving to online platforms or curb-side pickups, vape shops weren’t allowed to do either. In fact, under Quebec law, vape shops can’t sell their wares online, leaving small shops out in the cold, and vapers to find their own alternatives, likely driving money to other provinces or countries.

One small loophole remained: deps continued to sell a limited selection of popular, self contained pod products, and the e-cigarettes associated with them. They had Juul products, and Vuse (previously Vype). Both are relatively pricier options per milliliter, but I dusted off my Juul, and used it until I got sick of it, bought a Vuse, and then paid more than I used to for cigarettes until restrictions eased.

I wondered why these were available. Big box stores had sections closed off in an attempt to even the field, and while I was grateful to be vaping, I couldn’t help but wonder why there seemed to be some favoritism in play on vapes.

A quick search, and I found that the Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris) owns a 35% share of Juul. They already make multiple tobacco flavors including Virginia, Golden, and Classic. Even more fun, our former Health Minister Rona Ambrose joined the Juul board of directors in spring of 2020.

This gave me giggles because in 2014, in her position as Health Minister, she was quite concerned about vapes, flavors, et al, and called for further research. At the time, she said:

“Currently, without scientific evidence demonstrating safety or effectiveness, we continue to urge Canadians against the use of these e-cigarettes. We have heard that e-cigarettes may be a gateway for teens to begin smoking, while also having the potential to serve as a smoking cessation tool. Today, I am asking the Standing Committee on Health to undertake a thorough study on e-cigarettes and provide a report.”

– Rona Ambrose, while Canadian Minister of Health in 2014

So, as I see it, either the research came back clean, or she’s a high paid hypocrite shilling for big tobacco. I’ll wait.

What about Vuse? Oh, they’re owned by British American Tobacco, one of the biggest cigarette players in the world, now making sure they keep their profits up by having a foot in each world.

Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe self contained pods are just easier to stock. Well, my preferred one and done self contained e-cig is STLTH. They’re founded by a group of ex-smokers with over twenty years of cumulative experience in vape space, and no apparent ties to big tobacco. Their products are exclusively available in dedicated vape shops. Weird, right?

All this is in the name of “think of the children”. Well, I was one once, and I had no trouble getting my hands on cigarettes at 13. Locked in a decades long toxic on-off relationship with butts, I was down to a pack a week, feeling that was a negligible, “harmless” amount to smoke.

I made the switch to vape 2 years ago, and I breathe better. I no longer have that gross morning cough, and my vocal range has returned in a way I never thought it could. My house smells better. Hell, my hair smells better.

I enter an 18+ space, and make my adult decisions, aware that this is harm reduction, not perfection, and that no toxins are better than any toxins. It’s much the same way I think about alcohol.

If eliminating flavors stopped experimental and rebellious kids from doing stuff, alcoholic soda would be banned, and I wouldn’t have ever picked up a regular ol’smoke. If all we do is worry about the children, and 18+ spaces aren’t a good enough way to keep kids out and “safe”, then let’s board up every SAQ and SQDC.

Because as it stands, taking away my flavors looks like it won’t keep vape out of kids’ mouths, but it sure sounds like it will be taking money from small businesses, and giving it right back to big tobacco, one way or another.

Featured Image by Dawn McSweeney

Philippe Couillard and his Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) needed a distraction, badly. With austerity everywhere except for Bombardier and mass protests ramping up again, they needed a way to take everyone’s mind off the damage they were doing and refocus it on something polarizing, though easy to get behind. If the battle lines get redrawn, even better.

They found it. The PLQ’s particular brand of smoke and mirrors politics starts with removing smoke and vapor from Quebec’s terrasses.

The National Assembly just passed Bill 44 which makes it illegal to smoke on outdoor restaurant and bar terrasses and bans electronic cigarette smoking (vaping) everywhere tobacco smoking is prohibited. Establishments caught allowing their patrons to break this new law multiple times could face fines up to $100 000.

Whether you’re a non-smoker, a smoker, someone who hates cigarettes, vapes, you name it, one thing is clear: this law does nothing except help out the Couillard government.

No Health Benefits for Non-Smokers or Smokers

When Quebec banned smoking indoors in any public place back in 2006, bar and restaurant owners complained and some patrons weren’t happy either. Others, non-smokers and people who didn’t like their clothes smelling like smoke the day after a night out, rejoiced.

The indoor smoking ban made sense and had actual, tangible health benefits. Second-hand smoke can be a killer. When a room is filled with smoke, everyone in it is breathing smoke in, whether they want to or not.

Bill 44, on the other hand, makes no sense at all. It doesn’t protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke. Smoke outdoors is not enclosed, and with no ceiling to hit, it doesn’t linger. Some argue that there is a greater health risk sitting close to someone who is smoking, even outside, I fail to see how a smoker on the sidewalk, across an imaginary divide, poses any less risk to the non-smoker on a terrasse as one sitting on the terrace itself.

If this is correct, though, then doesn’t the smoker standing on a sidewalk pose a greater health risk to a non-smoker walking down the street then they did when they were sitting down smoking on a terrasse. If anything, this law just passes the buck. Health-wise.

This new law is even more galling when it comes to vapers. While the jury is still out on health risks faced by someone smoking an e-cigarette, one thing is crystal clear: there is no second-hand vape smoke, even indoors.

Image vapour.co.uk via Flickr Creative Commons
Image vapour.co.uk via Flickr Creative Commons

This new law offers no health benefits to non-smokers, but it also offers none to smokers. Smoking cigarettes is dangerous, but it’s just as dangerous for the smoker sitting on a terrasse as it is to a smoker standing on the sidewalk. Vaping, if it does turn out to be dangerous to the vaper, is equally as dangerous whether they are inside, sitting on a terrasse outside or on the sidewalk.

Only banning the sale of cigarettes and e-cigarettes outright can provide the health benefits to smokers that those who support this law want. Moving smokers to the curb is just an annoying esthetic measure that does nothing.

Esthetic Choices Should Be Left to the Establishment, Not the State

There is one solid argument in favour of Bill 44 that I have seen from non-smokers on my Facebook feed: cigarette smoke smells. It’s true, it does. No one, most smokers included, want their dinner to smell like an ashtray.

I fully support restaurants that banned smoking on their terraces. Most of them did it years ago. Some bars that want to offer a smoke-free experience to their customers have done the same.

I fully support an establishment’s right to select the esthetics they greet their customers with. People who want a smoke-free outdoor dining or drinking experience will support those establishments, as they have been.

If you don’t want people smoking next to you while you eat, select your establishment accordingly. There is no need for government intervention.

When the state imposes a uniform esthetic on all establishments, it doesn’t just hurt the dive bars and those places which prefer clients who like to smoke while they drink. It also hurts businesses that created a niche for themselves by offering a smoke-free outdoor environment. They loose that competitive advantage because now everyone with a terrasse offers the same experience…by law.

Creating Problems Where None Existed

If people thought smoking on terrasses was annoying, just wait till they experience having to pass through throngs of smokers standing on the sidewalk. Sure, that happens already in front of bars without outdoor space, but now it will be happening, even in the summer, in front of places with huge front and back terrasses.

Also, staff working at bars with terrasses will now have a new responsibility: making sure people don’t take their drinks with them when they step over the invisible barrier onto the sidewalk for a smoke. Even some of the most respectful and responsible people try to get away with little things like this (which carry a huge fine) when they have had a few.

So, there we have it. A law which does nothing to improve public health, creates problems where none existed and pits smokers as well as those non-smokers who hate government overreach against people who think any curbing of smoking is good. It even passes with unanimous consent, because which politician wants to vote against something that, in theory, curbs smoking.

Couillard has his distraction. Smoke and mirrors achieved by banning the smoke.