The harmful effects of vaping are quickly becoming apparent. Photo from Wikipedia

Cathy Majtenyi: Time to crack down on vaping

By 
  • October 23, 2019

Following 29 deaths in the U.S. and at least three cases of severe illnesses in Canada, the Canadian government is stepping up efforts to speak out about vaping, defined as “the act of inhaling and exhaling an aerosol produced by a vaping product, such as an electronic cigarette.”

The government has set up a website describing severe pulmonary illness associated with vaping, tracking cases of such illness across Canada, and advising youth, adults, parents and health care providers on how to avoid vaping dangers and when to seek medical attention. But while this is a good first step, the government needs to do more.

Health officials here and south of the border are scrambling to figure out which of the many harmful chemicals found in the aerosol could be the culprit. They have a long list to choose from: nicotine, solvents, formaldehyde, heavy metals, flavourings, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), vitamin E acetate, among other substances. THC and vitamin E acetate are found in cannabis vaping products. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against using vaping products containing THC. 

Beyond severe pulmonary illness are other serious implications for cannabis vaping. Last month the University of Guelph published a first-ever study of the brain impacts of vaping cannabis. Even a single exposure “to THC can change brain activity in ways that resemble changes seen in schizophrenia” that can “last for up to a week after the exposure,” says an article describing the research.

It’s laudable that the Canadian government is showing concern — even if we ignore the fact it legalized cannabis vaping in Canada as of Oct. 17, 2019. 

Then there is the matter of nicotine vaping. Despite the government’s robust hand-wringing, nicotine vaping is not only legal in Canada but is a growing industry.

Like cannabis, which was originally approved for use in very specific medical situations, vaping has snuck in through the back door. It was initially marketed as a way for adults to quit smoking, a product safer than conventional cigarettes, claims which the industry still stands by.

The research on whether this is truly the case is mixed. Much of the research shows that vaping is ineffective as a long-term smoking cessation strategy, a finding echoed by American heavyweights such as the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine. In fact, certain vaping products are more addictive than cigarettes.

But seductive marketing by the industry, the use of sweet and fruity flavours — strawberry, guava and peach in the case of one “proudly Canadian” vape company — and the availability of vaping products by companies in corner stores and gas stations has created the perfect storm for a new type of customer: teenagers, most of whom were not smokers in the first place.

A University of Waterloo-led study in May reported that, in 2017, 8.4 per cent of the Canadian teens surveyed reported vaping in the previous month. That number jumped to 14.6 per cent in 2018. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that young people who started using e-cigarettes were more likely to move onto regular cigarettes within two years.

Educators, health care officials, teens and parents are telling heartbreaking stories of addiction and illness from a trend many are calling an epidemic. 

“We cannot stand by and watch a new generation of Canadians become dependent on nicotine or be exposed to products that could have significant negative consequences for their health,” says an Oct. 11 statement by the Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health. Yet, governments are doing exactly that. 

Why does the Canadian government allow vaping? Why did the Canadian government legalize cannabis vaping?

We shouldn’t be seduced by arguments that more regulation will make vaping safer or keep it away from youth. Even if researchers discover what is killing and sickening people and opt to ban that substance, we can surmise that nicotine or THC (in the case of cannabis) will still be present in vaping products and youth will still be vaping.

More than 20 countries have banned or severely restricted vaping. It’s time the Canadian government step up to the plate to protect our health and our youth. 

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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