Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday December 10, 2018. 

The short answer is no. Yes, vaping is a big problem, health-wise in the first place. You may have heard that a North Vancouver high school is tackling the vaping-in-the-bathroom issue by locking all but two student bathrooms (which would have to serve 529 students.) Other high schools are having teachers and other staff members guard the bathrooms to deter students from vaping.

It looks like a band-aid solution with a punishment streak to it, except that the non-vapers are paying the price of bathroom shortage too. Will that make the vapers quit their habit? Highly unlikely, though they might quit vaping in the washrooms for now. That might solve the behavioural issue, yet the emerging solution amongst the youth is to inhale and hold the vapours in. That only makes it more deleterious health-wise, so what is being achieved?

The known health risks associated with vaping are many and complex; there are unknown ones too. Many health professionals argue that there has not been adequate research on vaping before it was released to the public. I wrote about the risks of vaping in teenagers in two previous columns. You can read about it here and here.

The issue is clearly out of hand and worrisome. There is an increasing number of teenagers (and younger) vaping and the argument that ‘at least they are not smoking’ is ludicrous. Teenagers are starting to smoke more; the numbers have gone up, for the first time in 30 years, according to research data compiled by University of Waterloo professor David Hammond, PhD, who is sounding the alarm about the troubling effects of vaping among teenagers.

A statement from the FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, released in September 2018 classified the vaping, or e-cigarette use, by American teenagers as ‘nothing short of an epidemic proportion of growth.’ What would make us think Canadian teenagers are faring better?

Health Canada admits to unknown long-term health risks yet the products are for sale and selling well. Teenagers vape (a lot,) and love it. Blame it on nicotine, it is highly addictive, more in teenagers than in adults. There are certain professionals out there affirming that nicotine is not the enemy, unless it comes in cigarettes and that ‘in the process of vaping, nicotine carries little risk by itself,’ (Forbes, 2015) which I argue it is  dangerous to affirm when children’s health is at stake.

While Health Canada does not see the issue of teens and vaping as alarming yet, it mentions the highly addictive nature of nicotine and its ill effects on developing brains. Nicotine affects concentration and memory. Like any addictive substance, it affects mood. Teenagers have poor impulse control due to an immature pre-frontal cortex. Adding addictive, mood-altering substances to the mix, only makes matters worse.

That aside, here’s a question: if I handed your teenagers any kind of consumable product (eating or vaping) with the mention that the long-term effects are unknown, would you let your child use it? Many times, daily? Would you actually allow me to ‘hook’ them on it? And if you somehow did, would you then address it as a behavioural issue or a health-related one?

That’s how it is right now. Vaping devices are available without adequate research. Yes, they can help adult smokers quit the habit, but they are also creating nicotine addicted teenagers some of whom will start smoking. Adult smokers who are benefiting from vaping can argue that teenagers should not be using the devices. Right. Marketing appeal anyone?

According to a report released in 2017 by Health Canada, the most common reasons for people to try vaping include: curiosity, appealing smell, social bonding and convenience (it can be done inside.) Can you see why teenagers use it and more are joining the crowd? Sadly, teenagers vaping is great for the vaping business. Anything that makes one look cool and have social appeal would make teenagers forget about risks, more so when not immediately visible.

Locking bathrooms does little to address the complex issue that vaping is: a health issue first. Making it a behavioural issue (which it does have a component of, but not exclusively,) rather than a health risk, transforms it into a power struggle. Who will win?

What if instead we start educating kids about the risks, while admitting to the appeal of vaping? What if we educate them on how marketing works and why teenagers make great customers? There are a few enlightening documentaries out there.

Knowledge is power.

Telling them the truth and helping them see through the fog – not fearmongering, but giving them the facts as we know them, can lead to a conversation rather than just punitive measures.

At the same time, we also have to address the reality of vaping devices being available to teenagers (they are easy to purchase, legally and otherwise) and address the wrongness of adults selling vaping products to underage customers. A growing industry is making a profit while hooking our youth on nicotine and increasing their risk of chronic health problems – perhaps that is what needs to be addressed first.