Electronic cigarettes

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

The complaint involved the accuracy of a statement in a CBC Montreal television report that said it was illegal to sell electronic cigarettes with nicotine. I found a mild violation of policy.

REVIEW

Summary: The complaint involved the accuracy of a statement in a CBC Montreal television report that said it was illegal to sell electronic cigarettes with nicotine. I found a mild violation of policy.

On September 11, 2012, CBC Montreal carried a television report about the availability and safety concerns involving electronic cigarettes, an inhaler that vaporizes a liquid into aerosol to emulate the act of smoking.

The report, based on a larger segment on the Radio-Canada program, La Facture, featured a parent, child and anti-smoking activist discussing the qualities, availability and concerns about e-cigarettes.

“Selling electronic cigarettes containing nicotine is illegal in Canada,” the report stated. The complainant, Rachel Steen, called that statement “verifiably false.” She wrote October 1 and said no law had ever been proposed to make e-cigarettes illegal.

Mary-Jo Barr, the news director for CBC Quebec, wrote Steen on October 10 and said the story was not errant.

While it was not “criminal” to sell electronic cigarettes, she said, “the Food and Drugs Act clearly indicates that products containing nicotine require market authorization before they can be imported, advertised or sold. Since electronic cigarettes have never received such authorization, it is illegal to sell them in Canada, which is what we reported.”

Steen wrote again November 11 and sought a review of her concerns.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accurate, fair reporting and for CBC to “not hesitate to correct any mistake when necessary” in its content.

CONCLUSION

The complaint involves a semantic dispute: Since Health Canada has not authorized electronic cigarettes containing nicotine under the Food and Drugs Act, does that necessarily make their sale illegal?

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police scrutinizes vendors of the device components to ensure they do not sell cartridges with nicotine. Canadian Customs officials seize import shipments of nicotine cartridges.

The online Electronic Cigarette Canada publication notes the confusion, too, and it asserts e-cigarettes with nicotine are “not legal to sell” in Canada. It notes, though, that using an e-cigarette with nicotine may not be illegal.

The most recent Health Canada information on this issue dates back to 2009, when it advised Canadians not to purchase electronic cigarette products because they had not been adequately tested for their safety.

It indicated that no e-cigarette product had yet been authorized for import, marketing or sale. Health Canada continues to take the position that, until a court determines legality, the e-cigarettes with nicotine are simply unauthorized.

As a result, the statement in the CBC report — that “selling electronic cigarettes containing nicotine is illegal in Canada” — was not quite accurate. But this does not make the opposite accurate, either: the e-cigarettes with nicotine are neither legal nor authorized.

I concluded it would have been preferable to use subtle alternatives — to note that the nicotine e-cigarettes were “not legal to sell” or “unauthorized for sale” — and that the result was a mild violation of policy.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman