A study commissioned last winter by Health Canada is casting new light on how young Canadians perceive the risks linked to vaping, where and when they are first exposed to e-cigarettes, and how receptive they are to marketing around the products.
The study, costing just under $150,000, relied on a series of 12 in-person focus groups held across the country, and an online survey of 1,509 Canadian residents aged 15 to 24.
Among other things, it revealed that teens and young adults are very aware that they are targeted by companies producing e-cigarettes, vape fluids and accessories.
“Asked who they think flavours with non-descriptive names such as ‘island breeze,’ ‘unicorn puke,’ or ‘golden ticket’ are marketed to, there was widespread agreement that such names target youth or young people,” reads the final research report, produced by private firm Phoenix SPI.
“A few … suggested that such names would appeal to what was described as ‘edgy teens’ and ‘hipsters.’”
The online survey conducted by the research firm revealed that, overall, just under half of Canadians aged 15 to 24 have tried an e-cigarette at some point. Just six per cent considered themselves “daily users,” however.
Among those who vape regularly or semi-regularly, about half said their parents were aware of their habit.
The government of Canada is currently working to tighten regulations surrounding e-cigarettes and vaping through Bill S-5, which will update the Tobacco Act. The changes would ban a number of flavour categories and marketing campaigns targeting youth, and would expressly forbid the sale of the products to anyone under 18.
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The Phoenix SPI results, collected in January and February 2017, also revealed that the majority of young Canadians try e-cigarettes for the first time in a group setting, normally as part of a social activity. They are also more likely to purchase their first e-cigarette as a group, rather than alone.
Youth (15-19 years old) were more likely to say they tried e-cigarettes because their friends were vaping, while young adults (20-24) were more likely to say they tried because they liked the flavours and smell.
“For the most part, users said they prefer sweet flavours, usually fruit-like flavours but also dessert or candy-like flavours,” the report notes.
When it came to risk perception, the results were sometimes surprising.
None of the participants in the focus groups who were currently “vapers” considered themselves to be addicted to e-cigarettes, for instance, “routinely explaining that their use is only occasional, that they vape only for fun, and that it is harmless, especially if the e-cigarette contains no nicotine.”
Among the young people who occasionally or often use e-cigarettes containing nicotine, 51 per cent didn’t know the nicotine concentration in the vapour they were inhaling.
The respondents who didn’t currently use e-cigarettes were more likely to perceive the products as potentially harmful, and virtually no one in that group saw themselves as likely to start vaping.
“Both users and non-users tended to have difficulty identifying definite health risks or benefits associated with e-cigarettes,” the report notes, which may mean Health Canada has some work to do when it comes to research and education surrounding the products.