By PETER GLAZIER
Teenagers are notorious for hearing what they want to hear and ignoring the rest. They’re also notorious for believing they’re invincible. So perhaps it’s no surprise that even government messages as clear as “vaping is less harmful than smoking, but it’s still not safe,” can get taken out of context.
In recent years, because of beliefs that it is safer than smoking, vaping has taken off in popularity and become alarmingly socially acceptable. Young people aged 15-24 make up nearly half of those who vape. The total prevalence of vaping and smoking among young people today is much higher than the prevalence of smoking in that population a decade ago. One in every three Canadian teens aged 15-19 have tried vaping at some point in their lives.
The frequency of vaping behaviour has also increased substantially; whereas in 2017 only three per cent of high schoolers reported weekly or daily vaping, by 2019 that number soared to 13 per cent. Recent data suggest that these levels will only continue to rise. While in 2019—before the stressful global pandemic—only 44 per cent reported daily vaping, by 2021 that number reached 55 per cent. And vaping may work at cross-purposes to the goal of reducing smoking: substantial research has indicated that the use of nicotine vaping products make youth more prone to smoking.
Let me be clear: vaping is NOT safe. It can increase your exposure to chemicals that could cause lung damage or have other adverse health effects. In fact, it can be deadly: in February 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 2,807 cases of e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury and 68 deaths attributed to that condition.
And that’s without even factoring in the potentially significant consequences of exposure to highly addictive nicotine. Exposure to nicotine through vaping devices can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke and damage young brains negatively impacting mood, attention, memory, and concentration.
Given these dangers and the alarming increase in vaping, especially among Canadian youth, the Lung Health Foundation believes we face a crisis. In the absence of stronger regulatory interventions, the lung health of future generations will continue to be at risk, and Canadian youth will be further exposed to the social and economic costs associated with smoking and vaping.
But we have two reasons for optimism: firstly, we’ve surmounted a similar challenge before and secondly, we’re already taking action.
We have successfully faced a challenge of the magnitude of the vaping crisis before. In 1965, about 50 per cent of the people living in Canada over 15 years old were active smokers (daily and occasional use). Since then, the prevalence of smoking for all age groups has declined steadily. Faced with concerning evidence on the health risks of smoking and spurred by sustained advocacy efforts, the federal government began in 1969 to introduce a series of measures focusing at first on public awareness and limits on advertisement, then broadening to encompass tax measures, limits on sales to youth and, beginning in 2001, a Federal Tobacco Control Strategy. The combination has worked: the most recent StatsCan data put the rate of current smokers at just eight per cent—a massive improvement since the 1960s.
Governments at all levels across Canada are taking real action to increase awareness of the risks of vaping and to reduce access to these products. No one who has scanned the 2022 federal Budget Implementation Act can fail to notice the proportion of that legislation that focuses on implementing an excise tax on vaping products that is designed to drive their cost higher and therefore out of reach of teenagers.
But we must continue on this path and do even more.
While the excise tax on vaping liquids is a major step in the right direction, we should also implement a tax on vaping devices. The Lung Health Foundation urges provincial and territorial governments to accept the federal government’s “invitation” to implement a co-ordinated vaping taxation framework. The current patchwork approach is not protecting our youth sufficiently. We must continue to help all Canadians who smoke or vape quit by offering free supports like Quash, the Lung Health Foundation’s free youth vaping and smoking cessation app.
We must continue to limit access to vaping products online and in stores. We should also implement an outright ban on all non-tobacco flavours in vaping products, especially mint and menthol flavours, which kids love, and which makes quitting vaping harder for them. Lest that sound like it’s more trouble than it’s worth, consider this: nearly half (44 per cent) of Canadian youth surveyed in a 2020-2021 study said they would quit vaping if they could not purchase flavoured vaping products.
So let’s clear up the mixed messages: neither vaping nor smoking are safe, and Canadian governments must do more to protect all Canadians—especially our youth—from their harmful effects.
Peter Glazier is executive vice-president of the Lung Health Foundation.