By Dr. Charles Gardner, Medical Officer of Health
The landscape of commercial tobacco and nicotine products has become more complex with the arrival of vaping products containing nicotine, which includes electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), the primary users of which are youth. While smoking among youth continues to be at an all-time low, vaping is now addicting young people to nicotine at concerning rates with Canada having some of the highest teen vaping rates in the world.
According to the Ontario Student Drug and Health Survey, the number of students in Grades seven to 12 who reported using vaping products in the past year doubled from 11 per cent in 2017 to 23 per cent in 2019, with 13 per cent —representing approximately 105,600 students—vaping weekly or daily. In Simcoe Muskoka about one third of students in this age group reported vaping in the past year, a rate significantly higher than the provincial rate. It is also notable that rates of vaping increase as youth enter high school.
An e-cigarette (or vape) is an electronic device that heats up a liquid known as e-liquid. The devices can be hard to spot, frequently looking like a USB stick, pen or highlighter, and does not always make a big “cloud” of vapour when used. Contrary to misbelief, e-liquid is not harmless water vapour as it contains nicotine as one of the main ingredients and some vaping liquids also contain cannabis. Nicotine is the same addictive drug found in tobacco cigarettes. However, a single e-cigarette can contain as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes or more, making them highly addictive. Another concern is that when heated, some of the other chemicals in e-liquid create the same cancer-causing by-product made by smoking cigarettes.
While initially marketed as a way to help people to stop smoking tobacco cigarettes in the mid-2000s, they quickly gained popularity among people who don’t smoke, including youth. Most vaping products contain nicotine and once addicted, youth who vape are three to four times more likely to start smoking cigarettes, threatening to reverse decades of work to reduce smoking rates and the number of Canadians suffering and dying from illnesses related to the use of tobacco industry products.
Nicotine also makes vaping products highly addictive, and the consequences can be more serious for kids and teens, because their developing brains become addicted to nicotine faster and with less exposure than adults. Nicotine changes brain development and negatively affects memory, concentration and behaviour, and contrary to misconception, vaping does not relieve stress among youth, and can actually increase anxiety and depression.
Healthy public policies like the Smoke-Free Ontario Act have greatly contributed to the progress we have made in reducing the use of commercial tobacco products. Along with laws and legislation, individually we can help prevent our communities’ young people from becoming addicted to these deadly products.
Parents and other caring adults play an important role in helping kids make decisions about their health. In fact, teens say their parents are the biggest influence in their lives. Talking early and often is one of the best ways to support young people in making informed decisions, and ideally prevent them from becoming addicted to nicotine through vaping. If a young person has already begun vaping, listen to their perspective and have honest discussions about the risks and share information about quit supports. Information, tips and resources to support you are available on NotAnExperiment.ca, which includes pages for youth, parents and educators as well as links to quit supports.
Dr. Charles Gardner is the Medical Officer of Health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. To learn more about the risks of vaping and other public health topics, visit smdhu.org.
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