New research suggests vaping among Canadian teens skyrocketed by 74 per cent in a single year, and that new brands of e-cigarettes are gaining a foothold following federal legislation.
University of Waterloo professor David Hammond, who led the study of youth vaping in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., said the findings reflect the risks of the "newest evolution of vaping."
The researchers say an online survey found the number of Canadian participants aged 16 to 19 who reported vaping in the previous month rose from 8.4 per cent in 2017 to 14.6 per cent last year.
Rates of weekly use climbed to 9.3 per cent from 5.2 per cent over the same time period.
In May 2018, Ottawa formally legalized vaping, opening the door for international vaping brands — some backed by big tobacco companies — to enter the Canadian market.
Weeks after becoming available in Canada, some of these vaping brands ranked among the most popular with teens, along with similar high-nicotine products, said Hammond. In the U.S., researchers found parallels between the rise of these brands and a surge in youth vaping, he said.
The study also suggested that youth cigarette smoking increased from 10.7 per cent in 2017 to 15.5 per cent the following year, deviating from decades of research suggesting tobacco use in Canada was on the decline, Hammond said.
Hammond said he hopes the results are just a "blip," but said it would be worrisome if other studies came to the same conclusion.
The research paper published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal is based on two waves of online surveys conducted in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. in July and August 2017 and August and September 2018. Data was collected from a sample of 7,891 Canadians recruited through commercial panels.
The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.
E-cigarettes can be an effective tool for adult smokers trying to quit, but Hammond said policy-makers need to be proactive in preventing young Canadians from picking up the habit.
"What the government and public-health authorities need to do is find some balance to allow adult smokers to have access to these products, without creating a new generation of nicotine users," Hammond said. "We haven't got that balance right yet."
Maryse Durette, a spokeswoman for Health Canada, said in a statement that the department has taken a number of actions in response to the mounting evidence that youth vaping is on the rise.
Durette said Health Canada is ramping up its efforts to ensure industry compliance with current federal regulations on the sale and promotion of vaping products.
The agency is sending letters to vaping retailers across the country to remind them of their obligations to prevent youth access, and health officials are expected to inspect thousands of convenience and specialty stores by the end of the year, said Durette.
Existing regulations prohibit youth-targeted advertising of vaping products, and Health Canada is reviewing feedback on proposed new measures to ban these ads in public places, stores and media where young people are likely to encounter them, Durette said.
The department is also examining the role of flavours, nicotine concentration and product design in appealing to youth and non-smokers, she said.
It has also launched a multi-phase campaign to educate teens about the risks associated with vaping at a young age.
But Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, said the research shows that government needs to do more — and fast.
"We have made such incredible progress to reduce youth smoking, and now we have a situation whereby a new generation of teenagers are becoming addicted to vaping products," he said. "We cannot stand still and allow that to happen."
Cunningham said Ottawa needs to tighten up advertising rules for vaping products to make them at least as restrictive as those for cannabis.
He also urged federal lawmakers to adopt restrictions on the use of flavoured vaping products, and said provinces should ban their sale except in adult-only specialty stores.
Most provinces have legislation on vaping products, and Cunningham said the only two outliers, Alberta and Saskatchewan, must follow suit.
He called on provincial governments to follow many U.S. states in raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21. As it stands, anyone 18 and over can purchase vaping or tobacco products in Canada.
On Thursday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix endorsed the Canadian Cancer Society's call to action, noting that the province has recommended restrictions on vaping advertisements and the sale of flavoured products as part of the federal consultations.
"B.C. also stands ready to introduce its own initiatives should federal action be delayed," Dix said in a news release. "Obviously, it is our preference to work with other jurisdictions and the federal government on joint action."