Cost of Living

How a way to quit smoking morphed into a teen vaping epidemic

Vaping can seem like it's everywhere today, having morphed from being presented as a healthier way to help smokers quit to being a potential public health crisis. It's an industry now worth billions but, to some, has seemingly come out of nowhere.

Connecting the dots between big tobacco, Silicon Valley, and teen vaping

A person views a mobile device while holding a Juul e-cigarette in this arranged photo. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)
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The teen vaping crisis in Canada is a little more than a year old now. Last September, researchers at the University of Waterloo surveyed nearly 4,000 Canadian kids, aged 16-19, asking them about their vaping habits. They found that 37 per cent of those kids had tried vaping and nearly 15 per cent had vaped in the past 30 days.

This September 2018 survey was done just four months after vaping had been legalized in Canada and showed a 70 per cent annual increase in the number of kids vaping regularly.

That number, of course, was shocking when it was released last June. The same researchers are back in the field right now, looking to update teen vaping data, as Health Canada and and the provinces scramble to contain the problem, while also monitoring the outbreak of respiratory disease and death in the United States.

Billion dollar industry

Over the past few years vaping has morphed from a way to quit smoking to a stand alone industry that's worth billions a year globally.

Some of the tactics behind how this industry grew so big, so fast, can be taken straight out of the technology playbook.

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A key player in the history of vaping is Juul, valued at about $38 billion after tobacco giant Altria — the company that also owns the Marlboro cigarette brand — bought more than one-third of the company.

In 2015, its signature product came to market in the United States. A Juul is an e-cigarette that looks like a USB thumb drive and uses a "pod" system for refills.

Juul users buy high-nicotine pods full of the vaping liquid, or juice, and these pods can only be used in a Juul.

Marketing through disruption

Juul's model of linking its consumables to a trendy, design-focused device is a hallmark of the tech industry.

It was part of a major disruption to the tobacco industry, and also slipped past regulations and laws governing the sale of tobacco products like cigarettes.

A woman walks by a Juul advertisement in a convenience store in Toronto on August 26, 2019. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Like a lot of tech companies making waves, the company was founded by graduates of Stanford University, Adam Bowen and James Monsees.

Trendsetting youth latch on

Meanwhile, younger consumers both picked up onto the new product well before the mainstream.

That was the case for Tyler Barone, who got into vaping as a young college student in Montreal.

"As a graduation gift from an older friend, he got me a vape because it was the new big thing to do," said Barone.

According to Barone, he would not have considered smoking — but he thought vaping seemed cool. Huge social media attention when new vape systems were released helped make the trend even bigger, in his opinion.

Students at an Ottawa high school show off their vaping devices. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"I remember following a rapper [on social media] a long time ago, and he was one of the first people to obtain the product Juul," said Barone.

Was Juul marketing to kids?

Juul denies marketing to underage consumers, and the company has been quoted as saying youth vaping is "completely unacceptable."

However earlier this summer, the company was called before the U.S. Congress and questioned about teen marketing practices.

House members pointed to internal documents indicating that Juul planned to push its products on social media and offered funding to schools for anti-vaping education, including wellness camps for kids in grades 3 through 12.

The company was also willing to pay schools thousands of dollars for Juul representatives to present mental health seminars in class.

US health authorities say vaping giant Juul Labs illegally promoted its electronic cigarettes as a safer option to smoking, including in a presentation to school children. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

At least some of these programs were quashed after the company learned that big tobacco had backed similar anti-smoking efforts decades earlier.

Juul executives in Canada said neither of those strategies were attempted in Canada, and the company said it has even advocated for Ottawa to ban social media marketing of vaping products.

Regulations in Canada

When vaping with nicotine products was still restricted in Canada, Juul was not widely available.

But in May 2018, Ottawa formally legalized vaping, opening the door for international vaping brands such as Juul to enter the Canadian market. The federal government has also passed legislation restricting the advertisement of vaping products, and banning their sale to anyone under 18.

Since legalization, Juul has captured a 78 per cent share of Canada's vape market, with its products available at more than 13,000 vape shops and convenience stores across the country. The company recently opened a retail outlet in Canada.

Within one month of being introduced to Canada, Juul was reported to be the third most popular vaping device among underage teens.

Industry reaction

While the tobacco industry is heavily invested in vaping now, there are also many independent vape stores that are  worried about being caught in the crossfire of a potential public health crisis.

"So what our concern is is that one issue [teen vaping] will outpace the other one to a disproportionate level," said Darryl Tempest, the president of the Canadian Vaping Association.

"Any youth use of these products is a massive concern for us. We don't want the opportunity to address Canada's number one form of preventable death to be pushed aside. We think both issues have to be addressed."


With files from Tracy Johnson, CBC News and The Canadian Press.

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