‘We have a youth vaping crisis’: 1 in 3 teens have tried vaping, Statistics Canada finds

More than one third of teenagers 15 to 19 have tried vaping at some point in their lives, according to a new report from Statistics Canada, the first of its kind to provide detailed information about vaping.

The Canadian Tobacco and Nicotine Survey, based on data collected from 8,600 people in November and December 2019, found that 36 per cent of teens in that age bracket had tried vaping, and 15 per cent reported doing so in the past 30 days.

“The new data reinforces the trend that we’ve been seeing over the last short while, which is that we have a youth vaping crisis,” said Sarah Butson, public policy analyst for The Lung Association.

“It demonstrates to us that vaping is in the hands of exactly the folks we are trying to protect and really emphasizes that we need to do more.”

She said The Lung Association has been calling for stricter regulation of vaping products, including a wholesale ban on flavours, “which are an incredibly powerful marketing tool for young people.”

Likewise, 15 per cent of young adults ages 20 to 24 had vaped in the 30 days prior to the survey, while nearly half (48 per cent) had done so in the their lifetimes.

In comparison, just three per cent of adults ages 25 and older reported that they had used a vaping product in the previous month, while 12 per cent had tried it at least once in the past.

Among the people surveyed who had vaped in the past 30 days, about 80 per cent had vaped nicotine.

Reasons for vaping vary across age groups

Those who responded to the survey were asked to identify their main reason for vaping in the 30 days prior to the survey. Among users ages 15 to 19, 29 per cent chose “because they wanted to try” and another 29 per cent picked “because they enjoyed it.”

Only nine per cent of teens surveyed cited a desire to quit or cut down on smoking cigarettes as their main motivation for vaping.

But among the 20- to 24-year-old cohort, 28 per cent said smoking cessation was their main reaso, along with more than half of those 25 and older.

Sarah Butson, public policy analyst for The Lung Association, said the organization is calling for stricter regulation of vaping products, including a wholesale ban on flavours, which she says are very powerful for enticing young people to take up the habit. (Submitted by Sarah Butson)

When vaping products first came to market, they were billed as harm-reduction and smoking cessation tools for tobacco users. But Butson said it’s unclear they’re effective that way.

“What we’ve seen to date is that the evidence is really inconclusive to suggest that e-cigarettes can be a cessation aid,” she said.

Instead, the association urges Canadians to talk to their health care providers about evidenced-based tools that can help them quit smoking.

‘We need to do more’

Butson said there’s been good strides made at the provincial level, with some moving to restrict flavours and increase the age to purchase vaping products.

“We would like to see that happen at the federal level, to really set the benchmark and make sure that we don’t have disparity across provinces so that we’re really protecting all Canadians, in particular all young Canadians.”

Butson said youth have a number of misconceptions around vaping. “One of the most common myths is that it’s harmless,” she said. 

In fact, vaping-related illness is on the rise in both Canada and the U.S.

Also, teens often underestimate the amount of nicotine that’s in the vaping products they use, she said.

The Statistics Canada report bears that out. 

It found that one in 10 users in both the 15- to 19-year-old and 20- to 24-year-old age brackets had tried a vaping device without knowing whether or not it contained nicotine.

It also found that teens were the most likely to think that vaping is less harmful than smoking at 27.9 per cent, compared to 11.6 per cent of users 25 and up.

The Heart & Stroke Association says it wants a ‘calculated approach’ that severely curbs teen recreational use while still allowing adults to use vaping products to reduce or eliminate tobacco use. (CBC)

Lesley James, senior manager of health policy at Heart & Stroke, said it will be a decade before the health implications of vaping are truly understood.

“It took a long time to determine how harmful tobacco was. We don’t want to make the same mistake with vape products that we did with tobacco,” she said.

Vaping may have a role in helping adult tobacco users to reduce their use or quit entirely, she said, but the study confirms they’re mostly used by young people for recreational purposes.

That’s what Heart & Stroke and the Lung Association want addressed as part of a public awareness campaign launched in January.

“We’re really asking for a calculated approach that regulates these products and keeps them out of the hands of young people — that we’re not creating a new generation of people addicted to nicotine — but still allow for adult smokers who want to use the products to quit, to have access to do so,” said James.

“But right now we don’t have that calculated strategy.”

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