Study finds younger, male Western University students hooked on vaping

A London, Ont., researcher is sounding the alarm about what he calls a “public health crisis” among young people who vape. 

More research needed to determine long-term consequences

A study surveying over 2,000 Western University students before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic found that young males ages 17 to 19 are twice as likely as females to use vapes. (Arnd WIegmann/Reuters)

A London, Ont., researcher is sounding the alarm about what he calls a "public health crisis" among young people who vape. 

A survey of over 2,600 Western University students conducted before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic found that those between the ages of 17 to 19 are 10 times more likely to vape than their older counterparts. 

"A huge concern we have with the vapes is related to nicotine," said Dr. Jamie Seabrook, associate professor in foods and nutritional sciences at Brescia University. 

"As more youths get addicted to nicotine, it increases the risk of obviously not only lung injury, but also increasing other things like potentially smoking cigarettes in the future." 

Younger students ages 17 to 19 were compared to those 20 to 25 years old, and 26 years plus. 

Students responded to questions analyzing their risk-taking behaviour within the previous 30 days, mental health, sociodemographics, family structures, socioeconomic background and childhoods. 

The study found that males are twice as likely as females to vape, and that vaping tended to be associated with substance use, sexual promiscuity and other risk-taking behaviours. Alcohol use doubled the odds of vaping, and cigarette use and cannabis use tripled the odds. 

Although cocaine use was not as frequent in those surveyed, it tripled the odds of vaping as well. 

Vapes replace cigarettes for younger people

Younger students are more susceptible to take part in addictive behaviours as they undergo major life transitions like starting university for the first time, Seabrook said. 

The way vapes are marketed to younger individuals as an alternative to cigarettes is also a contributing factor.

"It's interesting because when vaping first came out, it was used as an approach to get people away from cigarette smoking. But what we do know is that vape use basically doubles the risk of youth wanting to try cigarette smoking. There's also been research showing those who vape but have never tried e-cigarettes, it substantially increases the likelihood that they will in the future," said Seabrook. 

The study showed that 20 per cent of 17 to 19 year olds had vaped in the past month before taking the survey, but only nine per cent had smoked a cigarette. 

Those stats were virtually reversed for older students. Only three per cent of those 26 and older had vaped, but close to 20 per cent had smoked. 

Seabrook said the data reveals how addictive and popular vaping has become for the younger generation.

"We're seeing a lot of poly-substance use," he said, "This is linked to mental health illnesses and to potentially long-term problems as the brain is developing."   

He said the results lined up with research that has been conducted in the U.S. and Europe, but more is needed on the vaping habits of Canada's younger post-secondary population. 

He said he hopes that public health units will seriously regard the study, and use it as a foundation to develop further awareness and prevention campaigns. 

"We just don't know yet the major long term health implications," he said.  

"They're still young, and as we know that there's a latency period before you start to see what long-term exposure to in this case, vaping, let alone other substances, can do to your health long-term."