Curbing the youth vaping epidemic in Canada

By: Les Hagen, MSM, Executive Director, Action on Smoking & Health; Adjunct Professor, School of Public Health; Practice Affiliate, Centre for Healthy Communities

November 3, 2020

The youth vaping epidemic represents an enormous public health menace that threatens to undermine decades of progress in reducing youth smoking and nicotine addiction down to historic lows.  The latest Canadian Student Tobacco and Drug Survey (2018/2019) revealed that there are now 418,000 youth vapers in grades 6 to 12 across Canada.

Earlier this year, Canada’s Chief Medical Officers of Health produced a strong consensus statement on the youth vaping epidemic.  The statement urges the provincial and federal governments to implement comprehensive policy measures to stem the explosive rise of youth vaping and nicotine addiction.

The recommended measures include:

  • Ban all point of sale advertising including retail displays
  • Implement tax increases on vaping products
  • Prohibit all kiddie-flavoured vaping products
  • Limit nicotine content to reflect European standards
  • Include vaping as part of existing smoke-free restrictions
  • Raise the minimum age of sale to 21 on tobacco and vaping products

If these measures sound familiar it’s because several have been used successfully to help drive down youth smoking rates to all-time lows.

In other words, the solution to the youth vaping epidemic closely reflects the same successful policy measures that have been used to reduce youth smoking.

Unfortunately, the explosive rise in youth vaping and nicotine addiction threatens to undermine decades of progress in reducing youth smoking.  Youth who vape are at least four times as likely to start smoking.  Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the planet and it often results in tobacco dependence.  About two-thirds of smokers are clinically dependent on nicotine while only about 10 percent of cannabis users are clinically dependent on THC.

Although nicotine vaping is often touted as the ultimate smoking cessation tool the results have been disappointing.  In fact, for every smoker who successfully quits smoking by vaping there are 80 youth vapers who start smoking.  This “trade-off” undermines any potential public health or harm reduction benefits from vaping.

Tobacco use kills over 47,000 Canadians each year and it is the largest preventable cause of death, disease and disability in this country and many others.  The point source of the tobacco epidemic is a ruthless, defiant, careless and shameless industry that continues to target youth with predatory marketing strategies that are pervasive in social media feeds, corner stores, and even high schools.  Disturbingly, the tobacco industry now has a controlling share of the nicotine vaping market and they are using their old deceptive marketing tricks to target youth.

Despite the sound advice from our top health officials, Canadian governments are taking cautious baby steps to avoid disrupting an industry that is deliberately trying to hook hundreds of thousands of Canadian youth as you read these words.  Yet the same governments are rightfully moving heaven and earth to protect Canadians from the COVID-19 public health threat that may claim 47,000 lives in total.  These governments have demonstrated their willingness to temporarily shut down the economy, bankrupt businesses, and sacrifice jobs in order to protect public health for a communicable disease.  Almost every Canadian has been affected by the impact of these extraordinary measures.

However, the same governments have no plans to compromise a single culpable perpetrator (i.e., rhymes with fool) to prevent the spread of the youth vaping epidemic or its catastrophic prototype—the tobacco epidemic—to another unsuspecting and undeserving generation. Chronic disease prevention deserves as much attention and prevention as does infectious disease. The costs to the health system and society are significant and long-term.

However, there is no sign that the youth vaping epidemic is about to be contained anytime soon or that the tobacco industry will simply crawl under a rock.  While governments are waiting for the problem to go away, the vaping horses have escaped the barn and they are galloping at full speed toward our kids. 

Yet, if our governments will apply only a fraction of the resolve to this problem as they have toward curbing COVID-19, youth vaping can be readily curtailed.  Hopefully our political leaders are learning some valuable lessons and will start applying the same degree of responsibility, compassion and determination to other serious public health epidemics like youth vaping.