Number of Whitehorse students vaping on the rise: principal

The principal of a high school in Whitehorse says the number of students using e-cigarettes has blossomed. Bruce Thomson says it's a problem all high schools are struggling with.

'There's not enough known about these products to make conclusive statements about their safety'

A man exhales e-cigarette vapour in a park in central Kyiv, Ukraine on May 12, 2017. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The principal of a high school in Whitehorse says the number of students using e-cigarettes has blossomed. 

"Last year there was a couple of kids vaping and using e-cigarettes and this year there's a huge number of kids who are doing that," says Bruce Thomson, principal of F.H. Collins Secondary School. 

He says youth aren't getting the right information about the health risks. 

"The messaging that they're getting is that this is a way to not smoke," he said. 

"That's how the marketing is going on."

E-cigarettes, or vapes, heat liquid into a vapour, which is drawn into the lungs. The Canadian Medical Association says ingredients in the liquid vary by brand, but many contain nicotine "and/or flavours intended to appeal to young people."

Thomson confirmed some students are using a variety of products in their vapes, some are using nicotine.  

While e-cigarettes offer a potentially less harmful alternative to tobacco for people trying to quit smoking, they can also act as a gateway product. A study published last fall in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed youth who had used e-cigarettes were significantly more likely to start smoking a year later. 

That's exactly what the Heart and Stroke Foundation is worried about. 

"We certainly don't want e-cigarette use to re-normalize tobacco smoking behaviours," says Harsha Kasi Vishwanathan, a health policy analyst with the foundation.

"Tobacco control advocates have worked tirelessly over a number of decades to de-normalize tobacco smoking behaviours."

Research lacking

Kasi Vishwanathan says there's not enough long-term research about the health effects of vaping because of the relative newness of vaping products. 

"Our stance on e-cigarettes is that while they're likely less harmful than tobacco products, they are not without their harms," she said. 

"There's not enough known about these products to make conclusive statements about their safety." 

E-cigarettes with nicotine are currently illegal in Canada. Despite this, they are widely available online and in certain stores.

Regulation needed

A bill before the House of Commons seeks to amend the Tobacco Act to regulate vaping products as a separate class of products. It would legalize e-cigarettes with nicotine and create a regulatory framework for the manufacture, sale, labelling and promotion of e-cigarettes and vaping products. 

Meanwhile, some jurisdictions have brought in their own regulations. British Columbia and Nova Scotia have age restrictions on sales and regulations that classify e-cigarette products as tobacco products. Quebec has restrictions on marketing. E-cigarettes are not regulated in the Yukon, N.W.T. or Nunavut. 

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon's chief medical officer of health, says a school-aged behaviours survey showed more than 11 per cent of Grade 9 and 10 students surveyed in the Yukon in 2014 had tried e-cigarettes.

"E-cigarette use is certainly taking off," he said.

Anecdotally, Hanley says he's heard from concerned parents about teenagers taking up the practice. 

He says Yukon's health promotion branch is preparing educational products to support legislation around e-cigarette use. 

In the meantime, Thomson says F.H. Collins is clamping down on smokers and e-cigarette users. As of this semester, the school grounds are smoke and vape-free. He says they have also been adding information about vaping to educational campaigns around drug awareness. 

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