New national data shows the number of Canadian teenagers regularly using e-cigarettes ranks among the highest in the world, and experts say a lack of action from the federal government and the widespread availability of flavoured vapes is fuelling a growing crisis.
The latest results from Health Canada’s Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey, which surveyed 61,096 teenagers in grades 7 to 12 from nine provinces between September 2021 and June 2022, found that 29 per cent of Canadian students had ever tried an e-cigarette.
That number is down slightly overall in Canada, from 34 per cent in 2018-19, but is higher in older age groups — with 41 per cent of students in grade 10 to 12 ever having vaped.
Regular use of e-cigarettes also continues to be widespread in Canada, with 17 per cent of students having used an e-cigarette in the past month, down slightly from 20 per cent in 2018-19, but is again higher in grades 10 to 12 with over 24 per cent being monthly users.
Daily vaping rates were eight per cent across all students surveyed and close to 12 per cent among those in grades 10 to 12 — which experts say are some of the highest ever reported globally.
“The numbers have confirmed that Canada has one of the highest youth vaping rates in the world, especially as it relates to daily vaping,” said David Hammond, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo and a leading Canadian youth vaping researcher.
“We’ve essentially plateaued at historically high levels of daily vaping … this is maybe the best indication out there that we’re in for a long haul of regular youth vaping — we’ve crossed the threshold of this being a fad.”
Teen vaping rates ‘unacceptably high’ in Canada
The numbers are higher than they were five years ago, when just 10 per cent of students had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days and 11 per cent reported daily use in 2016-2017 — signalling a growing problem showing no signs of slowing down.
The new youth vaping survey data also partially predates the widespread availability of disposable vapes that came onto the market last year and hold thousands of pre-loaded puffs, don’t require refilling or cartridges and are linked to a surge in youth vaping.
“We’re very concerned by the long-term issue that e-cigarette use by teenagers continues to be very high — unacceptably high,” said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.
“And we need the federal government to move immediately to ban flavoured e-cigarettes, a factor that is contributing to these high rates.”
When asked what flavour they preferred, the survey showed 63 per cent of students in grades 7 to 12 who vaped in the past month had used a fruit flavour most often.
“There is no doubt that flavours are a very big part of youth vaping — they appeal to kids, they’re one of the reasons why they start trying vaping in the first place, and fruit flavours and candy flavours are a big part of that,” said Hammond.
“The main reason adults vape is to help them quit or not to die from smoking — flavours has a much bigger relative influence in youth vaping than it does for adults.”
In contrast, youth cigarette smoking rates have continued to drop significantly in Canada — with just 14 per cent of Canadian high school students reporting ever having had a cigarette, down from 19 per cent in 2018-19, and only one per cent smoking daily.
“We have seen over time some decreases in youth smoking. That’s because of high taxes, high prices, plain packaging and menthol bans,” Cunningham said.
“But unfortunately, overall nicotine use when you include both smoking and e-cigarettes, is going up … We have an enormous problem, a new generation is becoming addicted to nicotine and we need government action immediately to respond to that.”
Health Canada ‘sitting on its hands’ with youth vaping
The federal government sounded the alarm in June 2021 over a “rapid increase in youth vaping in Canada” and proposed changes to the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act to regulate the sale of “desirable flavours” helping drive the rising use among teens.
But two years later, as experts have noted, Canada still has some of the highest rates of youth vaping in the world and little action has been taken to regulate flavours at a national level.
“Health Canada is aware of and very concerned about the high rate of youth vaping in Canada,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement to CBC News, adding they are still reviewing feedback from their public consultations on flavoured vapes, which ended in September 2021.
Vaping has been marketed as an effective way to quit smoking, but e-cigarettes have never been approved as smoking cessation aids in Canada.
The federal government’s proposal to restrict e-cigarettes flavours — such as cereal milk, cotton candy, “unicorn milk” and “dragon’s blood” — was expected to help make vaping products “less appealing to youth” while still giving adults trying to quit smoking some flavour options.
But experts and health advocates say Health Canada seems to have shelved the proposal, walked away from further regulating flavours that appeal to youth and left it up to the industry and provinces to take action.
In the absence of national regulations, multiple territories and provinces have taken action, with Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Quebec now banning the sale of most e-cigarette flavours, in an effort to curb youth vaping.
Health Canada did create new regulations on the amount of nicotine allowed in e-cigarettes, setting a maximum nicotine concentration of 20 milligrams per millilitre as of July 2021. But it has not enforced any regulations on flavours.
“The reason we’re not seeing much lower rates of vaping in those provinces, is that the flavour restriction is not having any effect on their access,” said Cynthia Callard, the executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada.
“It’s only with federal action, that the provincial restrictions will be effective … It’s deeply disturbing that Health Canada is effectively sitting on its hands while this problem continues at such a high level.”