Vaping rates among young Canadians have fallen in recent years, but some experts expect those numbers to tick back up now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
The numbers stem from Health Canada’s recent Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, released Tuesday, which surveyed 61,096 students in grades 7 to 12 between September 2021 and June 2022 across nine provinces.
“Rates did go down slightly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Dr. Nicholas Chadi, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent and addiction medicine at St. Justine Children’s Hospital in Montreal.
“When the pandemic hit, there were kind of social rules restricting contact between young people, which limited the number of opportunities for young people to initiate or use in social contexts. Those limitations and rules are no longer in place. So what we expected was to see a bit of an uptick after that.”
During the 2021-22 period, 17 per cent of students reported vaping in the past 30 days, marking a decline from 20 per cent in 2018-19.
The prevalence was higher among students in grades 10 to 12 (24 per cent) than those in grades 7 to 9 (10 per cent).
Thirteen per cent per cent of students said they tried both cigarettes and e-cigarettes, a decrease from 16 per cent in 2018-19. Among students who had tried both, 31 per cent tried a cigarette first and 56 per cent tried an e-cigarette.
“For youth vaping, it’s somewhat positive that there’s a decline, but it’s still extremely high rates,” said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.
For example, Health Canada’s 2014-15 survey on vaping found that nine per cent of high school students in grades 10-12 reported using e-cigarettes during the last 30 days. In 2016-17, the number shot up to 16 per and in 2018-19 it rose to 29 per cent.
“This data is very concerning, in part because Canada has among the highest rates of youth vaping in the world, including daily youth vaping,” Cunningham said, citing a 2020 analysis done by the University of Waterloo.
Daily youth vaping sat around 12 per cent in the survey, unchanged from the previous years, Cunningham said, adding that this is a “sign that addiction is setting in.”
Flavours, disposable vapes a problem
For the survey, teenagers were asked about their main reason for vaping. Among students who vaped nicotine, the most commonly reported reasons for trying it were to relax and relieve tension (20 per cent), because they are addicted to it (20 per cent), because they enjoy it (14 per cent) and to get a nicotine high (12 per cent).
Students were also asked what flavour they vaped most often. Among them, 63 per cent reported vaping a fruit flavour, followed by no usual flavour (17 per cent) and mint or menthol (11 per cent).
“One of the major reasons why youth vape is because of flavoured e-cigarettes, whether it’s fruit or candy or menthol, there are about 2,000 flavours in Canada,” Cunningham said, adding that the Canadian Cancer Society has urged the federal government to ban all flavours of e-cigarettes, other than tobacco flavour.
Six provinces and territories have already done this — Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
In June 2021, the federal government put together a draft regulation to restrict most flavours of e-cigarettes, but it has not yet been adopted.
“Health Canada is aware of, and very concerned about the high rate of youth vaping in Canada,” a spokesperson for Health Canada stated in an email to Global News.
“Health Canada continues to analyze the feedback from the more than 25,000 submissions it received through its consultations on the proposed regulations and amendments to further limit vaping product flavours.”
Cunningham noted that disposable e-cigarettes have also gained popularity among young people, as they cost less, do not require any refills and are discreet. However, the current survey might not capture this trend accurately since these products were introduced to the Canadian market in mid-2022.
“They have proven to be very popular among youth in the United States and in England,” he said. “And so it might even be that the statistics are out-of-date; youth vaping might have gone up as a result. That’s a further concern that we need to monitor.”
'Leads to a pattern of addiction'
E-cigarettes were initially designed for older adults trying to quit smoking, Cunningham explained, and were introduced into the Canadian market in 2004.
“That was supposedly the intent. It wasn’t supposed to have large rates of youth vaping, but that’s what’s happening,” he said.
While some individuals may consume e-cigarettes as a means to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, Chadi said, the majority of young people are not using them for this purpose. Instead, they are driven by a curiosity to experiment with something “new,” he added.
“Young people will tell me that if they start vaping nicotine on a regular basis, it rapidly leads to a pattern of addiction, which can have sort of impacts on sleep and overall well-being and motivation to do different activities,” he said.
The impact of nicotine on various hormones in the brain can also affect emotional regulation, according to Chadi. Stopping and starting vaping can trigger cravings and potentially lead to instability, particularly in the developing brains of teenagers.
Health consequences of vaping
E-cigarette use can also have adverse effects on physical health, he added.
“Young people report about a cough or shortness of breath, decreased cardiovascular capacity, and this is obviously increased if they’re also using traditional cigarettes or smoking, or products like cannabis,” Chadi said.
Because vaping is relatively new, more research is needed to understand the full scope of long-term health risks.
“As a pediatrician, I will counsel my teens that the safest and healthiest thing is not to use e-cigarettes at their age.”