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Nearly half of young Canadians have tried vaping, according to a new study, and one expert says it's because of the idea that vaping is less harmful than smoking.
A Statistics Canada study released on Monday found in 2022 that "30 per cent of youth aged 15 to 19 years and nearly half (48 per cent) of young adults aged 20 to 24 years reported having tried vaping in their lifetime."
In comparison, the study said "10 per cent of youth and 27 per cent of young adults had ever tried smoking cigarettes. Adults aged 25 years and older were much less likely to have tried vaping (15 per cent) and much more likely to have tried cigarette smoking (52 per cent)."
Sarah Dow-Fleisner, an assistant professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, told Yahoo Canada advertising vaping as less harmful "has been a very successful campaign."
"These e-cigarettes were originally designed for the lifelong smoker to help taper them off… but it has since been commercialized and in that process, has now created a new generation of nicotine-dependent individuals."
There are chemicals in there that can do damage to the body, in addition to nicotine.Sarah Dow-Fleisner
Dow-Fleisner explained when it comes to smoking cigarettes, there are many external indicators like the yellowing of fingers or the buildup of nicotine on the tongue that shows how harmful it can be. Vaping, on the other hand, smells nice and leaves nothing behind.
"Saying that it's vapour… it feels very benign, but it's actually more of an aerosol than water vapour that you get from steaming something," said Dow-Fleisner.
What are the health impacts of vaping?
E-cigarettes produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine and other chemicals that help to make the aerosol, which is then inhaled into the lungs.
According to Ottawa Public Health, some chemicals found in vaping liquid, like vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol, are safe for use in products like cosmetics — but the long-term safety of inhaling these substances is unknown. Dow-Fleisner echoed that.
"We know that smoking cigarettes is like jumping out of a 10 storey building. We know vaping is like jumping out of that same building, but we don't know yet how high up people are," the expert said.
What's known, however, is that the nicotine in the vape can cause harm to the lungs, brain and body.
In teens, vaping nicotine can affect brain development, learning, memory, concentration and behaviour.
There are also short-term impacts, according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC), including:
Mouth or throat irritation
Cough and shortness of breath
Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
But long-term, vaping can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety and lead to prolonged use or a transition to cigarettes.
"When we look at young people… We know those risks are even more detrimental because the brain is still developing, the lungs are still developing, there's pathways in the brain that can lead to addiction," explained Dow-Fleisner.
Vaping is 'highly unregulated'
The level of nicotine can widely vary in vape juices. Prior to July 2021 in Canada, vaping substance nicotine strengths ranged from zero to over 60 mg/ml of nicotine.
Since July 2021, the Nicotine Concentration in Vaping Products Regulations implemented a maximum concentration of 20 mg/mL for vaping products manufactured in, or imported into, Canada. Legal vaping substances now contain 0 to 20 mg/ml of nicotine.
But labels may be deceiving.
"Over the past few years, researchers have found that even vaping devices that were identified as having zero concentration of nicotine had nicotine in them," said Dow-Fleisner.
People are often vaping much more often than they realize they are.Sarah Dow-Fleisner
"Young people vape to fit in with friends… thinking it's a safe product," said Dow-Fleisner. "But it's so highly unregulated that they're now introducing themselves to nicotine, which then leads to high rates of addiction."
Nicotine isn't the only harmful part of vape juice.
"There's also a small number of additives in there that can hurt the stomach and you can only smoke so much before you get sick," said Dow-Fleisner.
"People are often vaping much more often than they realize they are," she added.
What needs to be done about vaping?
Dow-Fleisner said young Canadians are starting to acknowledge and recognize that vaping is harmful, as many are experiencing shortness of breath, costing them a lot of money.
She said there should be campaigns and ads raising awareness about the risks of vaping targeting young Canadians on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
It's a stimulus that's not worth the risk.Sarah Dow-Fleisner
"We could do more," the expert added. "Commercials that promote vaping have been banned in Canada, so they aren't allowed to show them… But I would argue that we need to have something that is a bit more authentic to their experience."
Youth aren't just using vapes to rebel or to try and be a different generation, she suggested, but rather for a variety of reasons like connecting with their peers or stress relief.
"Nicotine creates a physical dependence. And so they're going to need a smoking cessation strategy," Dow-Fleisner added.
"They're going to need tapering. If they were to just stop nicotine, they would have the same withdrawal that you would have from cigarettes, that same withdrawal process that you'd have with shaky hands and irritability and all of the side effects of stopping."
In addition to individual support to those who want to quit, there also needs to be more regulation on the devices and the liquid (vape juice) used.
"There should even be guidelines around how to quit vaping, and how to reduce your use," said Dow-Fleisner.
She added she believes youth are increasingly becoming more aware of the problems.
"It's just putting dollar bills in big tobacco companies' pockets and buying some rich CEO another yacht off of our lungs," she claimed.
"I do think youth are starting to take ownership of this in their generation and saying that they're not going to do this."