Iceland’s healthcare system is in a state of crisis. Hospitals lack the funds to operate at full capacity, the spectre of privatisation is starting to wind its way into the healthcare industry again, and Iceland’s Minister of Health, Óttarr Proppé, must somehow find the funds to rescue one of the crown jewels of Iceland’s social welfare system. However, his first legislative act in his capacity as Minister of Health has been to introduce a bill regulating the sale and use of e-cigarettes.
What does the bill actually say?
Priorities aside, it bears mentioning that there are currently no Icelandic regulations regarding the sale and use of e-cigarettes and e-fluid. The essence of the bill is that vaping would be treated the same as smoking, i.e., it would be banned in bars, restaurants, cafés and public institutions. It would also be banned in the workplace and in schools (a step some schools have already taken).
This part of the bill is rather dubious. The dangers of secondhand smoke are well known, and when Iceland’s smoking ban was introduced in 2006, nobody objected on the grounds that secondhand smoke is harmless. Secondhand vapour, by contrast, has been little researched, but what we know so far is that it contains trace elements of nicotine, propylene glycol (a non-toxic solvent used in food production), and sometimes vegetable oil. However, the argument can be made that some flavours of vapour have intrusive odours that would not go well with, say, a restaurant meal. This should not, then, be framed as a health concern; it’s more of a public nuisance concern, such as playing your music too loud after a certain hour.
Another aspect of the bill would ban the sale of e-cigarettes and e-fluid to those under 18 years of age. This is certainly reasonable enough. Anecdotal reports have been coming in that young teenagers have begun vaping, and not necessarily as an aid for quitting smoking. The appeal is easy to understand: vapes themselves can come in bright colours, the flavours are often reminiscent of candy, and the lack of an age restriction provides teenagers with a moderately rebellious thing to do without actually hurting anyone (but themselves). Some secondary schools in Iceland have already noticed the popularity of vaping amongst under-18s, with Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð expressly forbidding vaping on the premises.
Then we come to the matter of the contents of e-fluid. The bill in its current form would forbid the sale of liquid any stronger than 20mg of nicotine per millilitre, with the bottles themselves limited to 10mL. This part of the bill, if it becomes law, is unlikely to have much bite. There are already retailers in Iceland who have found clever ways of importing more powerful forms of e-liquid, simply by having the exporter label the bottles as having little or even no nicotine at all. And then there’s the speculations of the retailers themselves.
Are you ready for black market vaping?
Erna Margrét Oddsdóttir, who owns and runs the e-cigarette supply shop Gryfjan, told Vísir last February that the reasoning behind the bill, that it is meant to protect children from harm, is flawed and could make matters worse.
“You can buy five litres of bleach from the store, and drain cleaner in bulk,” she told reporters. “But there is a childproof cap [on vape liquid] as there is a childproof cap on all these things.”
In fact, she says the regulations could encourage a black market for homemade vape liquid—the process that is easily Googlable but potentially highly dangerous.
Interestingly enough, on the same day that Óttarr introduced his bill to parliament, Morgunblaðið published a story reporting that police officer Sigvaldi Arnar Lárusson had discovered a black market for THC-laced e-liquid being sold in private Facebook groups. Sigvaldi connected the use of e-cigarettes—in particular, young people using e-cigarettes—with the use of cannabinoids, implying that vaping is some kind of gateway drug to cannabis use.
“I feel I must warn parents about this,” he wrote on Facebook. “The number of people who vape is increasing, and you can see kids vaping daily, [and by] kids I mean those aged 13 to 15 on schoolyards and elsewhere. And now they’ve developed this into cannabis oil that people can smoke and get the same effects that they’d get from smoking cannabis.”
But does it have the votes?
“I noticed in parliamentary discussions about [Óttarr’s] bill that there isn’t a majority of votes to pass it, as it is today,” Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir told us. “It’s not a ruling coalition bill [that is, the bill was submitted solely on behalf of Óttarr; not the ruling coalition as a whole] and so ruling coalition MPs are not obligated to pass it, so you could say that this is a waste of time. I would have rather have seen the Minister of Health fight for nonpartisan support to find funds for the healthcare system, which is in a state of crisis, and which almost all Icelanders want to fund further.”
Birgitta, while not opposed to regulations on vaping and vape products, takes exception with these proposed regulations being categorised under tobacco laws. Comparing vaping to smoking tobacco, she says, “is like comparing coffee to alcohol.”
As it stands now, Óttarr’s vaping bill stands likely to go the way of so many other legislative efforts of Bright Future: met with confusion and derision before vanishing into the wind, like so much vapor.