To Vape or Not to Vape

How to reduce harm for youth

The 2018 BC Adolescent Health Survey found that one quarter of youth in grades 7-12 had used a vaping product during the month they were surveyed—the number of Canadian youth using vape products doubled between 2017 to 2018. These are significant findings; coupled with the recently publicized growing vaping-related lung damage and deaths in North America, it seems that the issue of youth vaping needs to be addressed in multiple ways and across different levels of society.

The most important support for youth may come from the caring adults in their lives through education and the creation of safe spaces to talk with young people about vaping. For youth, having trusted relationships with adults helps decrease stress, encourages healthy relationships and fulfills the need to be understood. Knowing some of the health concerns related to smoking e-cigarettes and how you can support youth to make healthier choices is important.

It’s not enough to point out the obvious; that it is illegal for youth under the age of 19 to use vape products in B.C. so therefore they shouldn’t do it, or encourage you to tell youth to “just say no.” History has shown such strategies don’t work and may be no match for the aggressive marketing of vaping products.

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Vaping may lead to tobacco cigarette smoking and other substance use and can affect the greater community. Health care providers and researchers are already noting the damaging effects of first and second hand vaping smoke. We now have scientific proof that vape products alter youth brain development by increasing exposure to harmful chemicals and that the damage can be irreversible.

Along with destroying brain cells and potentially addicting vulnerable youth, we also see other parallels with tobacco use. Recent research out of Quebec demonstrates that vape products act somewhat similarly on the body to tobacco ingestion. Teeth are destroyed and gums recede permanently; wounds heal more slowly leading to infections and damage to other body organs.

Just because we don’t have the complete picture or the final conclusive evidence that vaping is extremely harmful for youth doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use common sense. Inhaling metals like zinc, nickel and aluminum into your lungs (which occurs through the heating process in e-cigarettes), isn’t good for anyone. These metals are often found in vaping products as is nicotine, which is highly addictive, very difficult to quit and in unregulated products, may be poisonous.

Recent figures find that 50 per cent of vape products used are from the “black market” and therefore unregulated. There really is no way to know what is going into the unregulated products unless they are tested; and these products could potentially do irreversible damage and have extremely addictive effects. The process of vaping has been shown to produce compounds such as formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical not recommended for human consumption and commonly used for preserving deceased bodies.

Unfortunately, vaping products became available and sales increased rapidly before sufficient regulation or legislation was developed. The lack of sufficient regulations and the large amount of unregulated products being consumed are some of the reasons there is so much concern. Long-term research on the future health impacts of vaping has yet to be completed but current findings suggest that the impacts of vaping seem to parallel that of tobacco.

The health risks of vaping are significant and this is why we have new government legislation and regulation, increased health prevention initiatives aimed specifically at youth and lawsuits (in the United States) being put forward to slow the pace of youth consumption of vaping products. This is not enough to curb the rate of vaping addiction and we must try to find positive motivators for youth to not start or to quit vaping rather than just presenting warnings.

Legislation stopped the advertising of tobacco products at sports events and on television; however, youth are now exposed to the glorification of e-cigarette products in places like social media. Here, the language is often aimed at the young and the message is clearly set to appeal to youth: if youth vape they are happier, hipper, more successful… etc. We know that highlighting what others are doing can promote change and this is one of the reasons the marketing is effective for even non-vaping youth.

There is not sufficient scientific evidence that vaping helps with tobacco smoking cessation to suggest youth vape rather than smoke tobacco; it may have the opposite effect in introducing youth to a culture of addiction and cause long term, irreversible health problems. What can adults do to reduce the number of youth vaping? They can open the conversation by asking youth what they know about vaping, be informed themselves, and present the information they are aware of when creating opportunities to talk.

Recognize that involving youth in social activities with peers such as board game meet-ups or team sports is key to keeping them socially engaged and maintain belonging and community connectedness. Bring positivity into their lives and validate the progress and good choices that are being made by youth. Asking open-ended questions about topics that may make adults uncomfortable can reduce the potential harm and help youth to learn from their mistakes. The key to this is modeling good behaviour ourselves, providing positive incentives or rewards and beginning these conversations at the elementary-school level before youth start vaping.

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