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Vaping, not smoking, now the vice of choice for high school kids

Last Updated Sep 19, 2018 at 4:01 pm EDT

A product meant to help adults quit smoking is increasingly finding its way into the hands of high school students, who may know little about the harm it can cause.

When e-cigarettes first began to appear on the market more than 10 years ago, they had been marketed to smokers as a safer alternative, without the same chemicals and tar that come with burning tobacco.

But more and more — with bright colours, and flavours like gummy bear, cotton candy and watermelon — it appears they’re appealing to high-school students who might not have even tried smoking.

Vaping is now the vice of choice for teens, who enjoy the sensory buzz and blowing the vapour from e-cigarettes into rings and mushroom clouds.

“It looks cool. It’s considered fun to do. What is for sure is that the kids — and I would argue their parents — have no idea of the potential health effects,” said Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Although it’s illegal to sell or give vaping devices to minors, Schwartz said there are convenience stores that will flout the law, and teens will also get an older brother or parents to buy for them.

Youths in Ontario are even free to purchase e-juice refills, with or without nicotine, which are not included in the province’s Electronic Cigarettes Act.

What’s more, said Schwartz, vaping products are displayed openly and promoted “aggressively” with gas station banners and the like, and since the liquid is now allowed to contain nicotine, big tobacco is “all over it.”

The rate of high-school students who use e-cigarettes has gone up significantly in Canada over the past several years.

One in three students in grades 10 to 12 had tried an e-cigarette, according to Health Canada’s 2016-17 Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey.

More tellingly, 15 per cent of students had vaped in the past 30 days — suggesting regular use — while five per cent identified as current smokers.

“That’s huge,” Schwartz said. “It’s way more than smoking.

“There’s a big concern that kids who do not smoke are picking up vaping and they may become dependent and regular long-term users with very likely negative long-term health effects,” he said.

Those risks largely have to do with nicotine, which he pointed out is “as addictive as heroin.” Health Canada said there is solid evidence it can also alter brain development.

Most researchers and health agencies say vaping is a less harmful alternative to combustible cigarettes, but there are concerns over non-smokers picking up the habit. Several studies have found vaping can have a harmful effect on the lungs and heart, and study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found chemicals in the vapour, like formaldehyde, can cause DNA damage and mutations.

There are also concerns vaping may lead to smoking tobacco.

“There is really very broad consensus in the scientific community that there is enough known about the potential health effects of vaping to conclude that if you’re not a smoker, you should not vape,” Schwartz said. “It’s certainly not benign.”

According to the 2016-17 study, however, one in 10 students thought vaping regularly posed no risk, and the same percentage admitted they had no idea whether it was harmful.

Some believed it was safer to vape only once in a while.

Now, a product that Schwartz calls “extremely concerning” and has captured more than half of the e-cigarette market in the U.S., is officially launching in Canada — though it’s been available here since March.

Juul is smaller than traditional e-cigarettes — making it easy to use surreptitiously — and has extremely high concentrations of nicotine.

One Juul pod, which lasts for about 200 puffs, contains about the same level of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes as the company says it’s designed for smokers trying to quit.

“No minor or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul,” a spokeswoman for San-Francisco-based Juul Labs said. “It is for adult smokers only.”

In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating the company, which it fears is marketing its product to youth.

“The troubling reality is that electronic nicotine delivery systems such as e-cigarettes have become wildly popular with kids,” Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a release.

“We understand, by all accounts, many of them may be using products that closely resemble a USB flash drive, have high levels of nicotine and emissions that are hard to see. These characteristics may facilitate youth use, by making the products more attractive to children and teens.”

Health Canada is also planning a campaign using social media influencers to educate youth about the risks of vaping and to provide resources to teachers and parents.

On the other hand, Doug Ford’s government has paused the previous administration’s Smoke Free Ontario Act, which would have regulated vaping like tobacco, tightening the rules around where people can vape and how the products can be displayed and sold.

“One of the things that’s difficult for both policymakers and the public to understand is that e-cigarettes may at the same time be both a problem and a solution,” Schwartz said.

“If e-cigarettes actually help people quit smoking, great. Then promote them to smokers … don’t promote them to kids who are not smokers.”