Chris Lalonde: Governments must find optimal regulatory balance with vaping

The increasing popularity of vaping among teens has many people concerned.

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Across Canada, underage youth are legally restricted from purchasing alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes and vapes. But according to recently released survey data, they are using them anyway.

The media headlines say it all. A recent report in the British Medical Journal shows that Canada has experienced a “massive,” “staggering,” and “whopping” increase in teen vaping. Among 16- to 19-year-olds, last-30-days vaping use increased 74 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

The provincial government and the Canadian Cancer Society used the data from the report to publicly demand that the federal government immediately introduce vaping regulations that would restrict nicotine content, device design and flavours. Their failure to do so, the B.C. government implied, would result in B.C. introducing more restrictive provincial regulations.

What is not mentioned is that both federal and provincial government vaping legislation already exists that restricts sales to anyone under the age of 18, promotion, display advertising and communication, and limits features like certain flavours and designs thought to be appealing to youth. Is this single set of data in the BMJ report enough to justify the hasty introduction of more draconian regulatory measures that could simultaneously reduce the appeal of these products to adult smokers that rely on vaping to reduce or quit smoking?

What’s more concerning is that the same report shows that teen cigarette smoking in the past 30 days increased by 45 per cent. The use of alcohol by teens in the past 12 months actually decreased by three per cent, but cannabis use went up by 19 per cent.

The important question is which of these numbers should we be worried about? Let’s look a little closer at the actual data.

According to the report, 60 per cent of youth used alcohol and 27 per cent used cannabis in the past 12 months, 16 per cent smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days, and 15 per cent vaped.

Cigarette smoking and drinking carry far greater health risks than vaping or cannabis. But apparently, we should be especially alarmed by teen vaping.

If, as health authorities all agree, vaping is safer — not safe, but safer — than smoking cigarettes, then, perhaps, we should think clearly about what we hope to accomplish by battling teen vaping by introducing provincial regulations that go even further than regulations for smoking or drinking.

If what we hope is that teens who already smoke might be tempted to switch to vaping, then the report contains some good news. Among current teen smokers, 44 per cent are also vaping. Even “experimental smokers” are also vaping (29 per cent). Are they on their way to fully switching from cigarettes to vaping (likely, and a good thing), or from dual-use to just smoking (unlikely, and a bad thing)?

But what about teens who have never smoked? Are they being lured into a lifetime of addiction by vaping? Here, at least, the news is rather good from a public-health perspective.

It turns out teens are not very keen on vaping or smoking. Most of them have never vaped, and among those who have tried it (20 per cent), just three per cent have vaped in the past week and only 0.6 per cent vaped on more than 15 of the last 30 days. That’s just 14 teens out of the 2,441 surveyed.

The report shows that the number of teens who never smoked surveyed in 2017, just five, skyrocketed to 14 in 2018. But wait, that’s up from 0.2 per cent to 0.6 per cent — a mind-numbing 200-per-cent increase!

Let’s get serious. Perhaps we should worry more about the 2,227 teens who used alcohol or the 1,425 who smoked cigarettes.

Chris Lalonde is a University of Victoria psychology professor and the academic research adviser for Rights for Vapers, a vaping advocates organization dedicated to the advancement of Canadian-based research on vaping.

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