Vaping up, cigarette use down, among Canadian youth

While vaping increased significantly among Canadian youth over a six-year period, cigarette use remained stable or decreased, a University of Waterloo study says.

Vaping increased dramatically over the six years being examined by the researchers, notably starting before nicotine vapes were legally available in Canada in 2018.

Adam Cole, a public health researcher who led the study while at the University of Waterloo, said that is likely because the devices are “easier to hide, more enjoyable to use, come in different flavours and are portrayed attractively on social media.

“We also know that even though nicotine vapes were not legally available in Canada, some were still being sold, and youth are creative in finding ways to get products like vapes if they really want them.”

Cole said they also found smoking rates were stable in the early years of the study but started to drop off in the most recent years, “which suggests that rather than smoking cigarettes, students are sticking with vaping.”

The researchers studied data from more than 30,000 high-school youth in grades 9 to 12 in more than 60 schools in Ontario between 2013 and 2019. The data also included a smaller sample from Alberta (nine schools), and large samples from British Columbia and Quebec, but only over three years because data was not available before 2016.

In the Ontario sample, the prevalence of vaping increased among all grades, both genders and all ethnicities. Eight per cent of students reported vaping in 2013-14, but by 2018-19, 26 per cent of students reported doing so – an increase of 238 per cent. At all time-points, vaping was highest among males and grade 12 students, and lowest among females, grade 9 students and Asian students.

In British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, approximately three times as many youth currently report using vapes rather than cigarettes. Although the sample size in Alberta was much smaller, the trends were generally the same as in Ontario, Cole said.

“We need additional regulation to help prevent youth from getting access and using vapes,” said Cole. “There has been a lot of talk about limiting flavours, or raising the minimum age, or limiting advertising, but we’ll need a comprehensive approach in order to actually affect vaping use. Even at the school level, teachers don’t necessarily know how to talk to students about vaping, or what to do when they see them being used on campus.”

The data came from the COMPASS study, a multi-year survey of Canadian youth designed to evaluate the impact of changes to programs and policies on youth behaviour over time. It “shares the same story as other recent studies, such as in the U.S. and David Hammond’s study of Canadian youth, but with a larger sample and a longer time period,” said Cole.

The study, “Trends in youth e-cigarette and cigarette use between 2013 and 2019: insights from repeat cross-sectional data from the COMPASS study,” is co-authored by Adam Cole (Waterloo, now at Ontario Tech University), Sarah Aleyan (Waterloo), Kate Battista (Waterloo) and Scott Leatherdale (Waterloo). It was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

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