Nearly half of Canadian young adults aged 20 to 24 and about one-third of youth 15-19 say they have tried vaping at least once in their lives, according to new numbers released by Statistics Canada in their Canadian Tobacco and Nicotine Survey (CTNS) released on Monday.
The numbers come just three months after new reporting requirements for retailers and manufacturers were passed, bringing change to what some had called a “Wild West” in vaping.
Those regulations lay out that businesses must now submit semiannual sales figures and ingredient lists to Health Canada, with the first reports due at the end of this year. The main goal being to get a better understanding of what vaping products are popular, especially among youth, and identifying the specific ingredients being inhaled by users.
And provinces have been taking action as well, with Quebec set to ban flavoured vape products on Oct. 31. Under that province’s regulations, only vapes that taste like tobacco or are flavourless will be allowed to be sold in Quebec — a move that angered the vaping industry but was celebrated by anti-smoking advocates.
As of September, there are six provinces and territories that ban or are set to ban most flavours of vape products: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and, come Oct. 31, Quebec.
In addition, Ontario, B.C. and Saskatchewan have adopted restrictions that only permit the sale of flavoured vaping liquids to specialty vape shops that children cannot enter.
Rob Cunningham with the Canadian Cancer Society, which lobbies federally for better research, health care and protections, says the federal government needs to step in and implement draft regulations presented in 2021 by Health Canada that would restrict all e-cigarette flavours except tobacco, mint and menthol across the country.
“E-cigarettes are highly addictive. They’re harmful. We don’t even know yet the full long-term harms,” he told Global News in an interview. “And kids are getting addicted in shockingly high numbers. That cannot continue.”
But Darryl Tempest, the government relations counsel for the Canadian Vaping Association (CVA) and who has lobbied for them federally over vaping regulations, cautioned targeting flavours could do more harm than good as a large number of adults who use vaping as a method of getting off of tobacco smoking often use flavours.
“So when we really look at the net benefit to society, we really picked the wrong one. If we’re going to have a moral fight, this is not about morality. This is about harm reduction. And that’s the point that’s missed,” he said.
While vaping products have other flavours like mint or menthol, Tempest compared having a selection of flavours to flavours with alcohol, yet he notes governments aren’t working to ban those products.
He added that in comparison to cigarettes and adding menthol to those products, flavours for vaping is a different situation.
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“Menthol took a very harmful product and made it smoother,” he said. “Flavours were taking a far less harmful product, by at least 95 per cent, and making it more palatable. It’s not the same thing.”
While health agencies like Johns Hopkins Medicine say vaping is less harmful than smoking cigarettes, they and other health agencies also say that “it is still not safe” and contains thousands of chemicals.
Health Canada has cautioned that use of the products can “lead to physical dependence and addiction” and expose people to chemicals “that can be harmful to your health.”
The agency advises young people and those who don’t use tobacco products should not vape.
“While vaping products can help people quit smoking and switching completely to vaping is less harmful than continuing to smoke, it is not harmless and not intended for young people,” the agency says, noting no vaping products are approved to help people quit smoking in Canada.
Part of the concern is while vape products like e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, nicotine is still an ingredient and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Addiction in the U.S., is an addictive substance that can be harmful to people at any age, but especially youth.
The stimulant can harm the developing adolescent brain, affecting the parts that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control the CDC noted. Research has found that there’s a “strong and robust” linkage between vaping and subsequent tobacco use.
Health Canada also cautions that youth exposure to nicotine can also impact brain development, given it develops throughout adolescence and early adulthood.
“So there are concerns there about long term addiction to nicotine and the potential to then transition to other products from a lung health perspective,” said Sarah Butson, public affairs and policy analyst with the Canadian Lung Association, which also lobbies federally for a variety of regulatory changes including tougher tobacco restrictions and public safety measures.
Butson said there is also concern over the potential of whether individuals could experience an aggravation of their existing lung disease symptoms, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The biggest concern, however, is that long-term effects of vaping are not yet known.
“There’s more to be done in terms of long-term research, but there’s enough for us to know that these products are not harmless,” Butson said.
The CTNS also showed higher numbers among youth and young adults for more frequent use of vaping compared to older Canadians as well, though not at as high levels as those who reported having tried it at least once.
The survey found about 20 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 and 13.6 per cent of those 15 to 19 saying they had vaped in the past 30 days, while just 3.9 of those classified as “25 and older” reported the same.
Daily vaping is also higher among younger Canadians, with 6.5 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds and 10 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds saying they do so on a daily basis, while just two per cent of those 25 and older do the same.
According to Statistics Canada, the numbers also show prevalence of smoking and vaping moving in “opposite directions.”
In the most recent survey, while 20 per cent of the 20-24 age group reported having vaped in the past 30 days when they were asked in 2022 — up from 17 per cent in 2021 — that same age group had only eight per cent smoking cigarettes, down from 10 per cent the year prior.
Cunningham said higher taxes on vaping products could help deter more youth and young adults.
“There is no doubt that younger people are responsive to higher prices, higher taxes, and there is an opportunity for all provinces to have an e-cigarette tax and to participate in the federal e-cigarette tax,” Cunningham said.
But as Canadian provinces consider new regulations on vaping, he added he’s worried the country may be repeating lessons it should have already learned.
“We shouldn’t have to repeat history by playing catch-up and regulating the tobacco industry with respect to vaping products, the way we had to regulate the tobacco industry over many, many years,” he said.
“Schools and parents are struggling with these high rates of youth vaping. We need governments to give them a hand.”
— with files from Global News’ David Baxter