What are e-cigarettes and how can you discourage children and youth from using them?

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are small, battery operated devices that may be designed to look like cigarettes or be decorated with other “cool” designs. Instead of burning tobacco, e-cigarettes vaporize something called an "e-liquid," which can contain nicotine.

Different brands and models of e-cigarettes have different amounts of nicotine. When the vapour is inhaled, which is often called "vaping," nicotine can enter the lungs as a vaporized solution. Many cartridges also contain candy and fruit flavour, which also appeal to children and youth.

E-cigarettes have three components:

  • An inhaler cartridge that holds the e-liquid (with or without nicotine, which is the addictive and toxic ingredient found in traditional cigarettes).
  • The vaporizer, which heats and turns the liquid into a vapour that is meant to be inhaled like smoke.
  • A battery of varying voltage that powers the e-cigarette.

Should parents be concerned about e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes may offer some potential for harm reduction, when used as a smoking cessation aid for people trying to quit using traditional cigarettes and tobacco. However, e-cigarettes also model smoking behaviour to non-smoking youth and are easily accessible to them. They have the potential to renormalize smoking and may attract or hook non-smokers.

The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit's video E-Cigarettes:To Vape or Not to Vape offers more information about this issue in a way that is accessible to youth.

Despite Health Canada’s 2009 ban of the sale of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, they are still widely available. E-cigarettes are now being used and promoted by celebrities and on television and in movies.

How many youth are using e-cigarettes?

  • In 2015, 26 per cent of Canadian youth aged 15 to 19 reported having ever tried e-cigarettes. This compares to 20 per cent in 2013.
  • Six per cent of youth aged 15 to 19 had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days, an increase of three per cent from 2013.
  • Among people who have never smoked cigarettes, 41 per cent of those who reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days were youth aged 15 to 19.
  • The 2016 US Surgeon General’s report indicates a three-fold increase in e-cigarette use since 2011 among middle and high school students who had never tried regular cigarettes.
  • E-cigarettes have not been evaluated for safety and quality by Health Canada.
    • Teens become addicted to nicotine at lower levels and fewer exposures than adults.
    • Nicotine disrupts development of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, leading to increased risk of depression, poor memory, decreased impulse control and attention.
    • Some e-cigarettes are designed for use with marijuana, hashish concentrates and oils.

What are the health and safety risks for youth?

According to the Canadian Pediatric Society:

  • Exposure to e-cigarette vapours and nicotine may have harmful effects on developing children's brains and can cause nicotine dependence and addiction.
  • Flavourings and the chemical propylene glycol in the e-liquid can irritate children's lungs when heated as they release toxins and can worsen conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.
  • The e-liquid can be poisonous to young children if ingested, and can be toxic if spilled on the skin leading to nausea or vomiting, difficulty breathing and even seizures.
  • Use of e-cigarettes can be a gateway for youth to take up cigarette smoking.
  • Batteries in the e-cigarettes have been known to explode.

What is being done to protect children and youth?

  • Provincial tobacco legislation, such as the B.C. Tobacco and Vapour Products Control Act and Tobacco Control Regulation, has been updated to include e-cigarettes. Vapour products cannot be sold to minors, and product store displays are now regulated the same way as tobacco.
  • Use of vapour products is banned in all public spaces where the B.C. government has also banned tobacco smoking. Some municipalities have included vapour products in their smoke-free bylaws.
  • Canadian and international public health organizations recommend legislation to restrict marketing to youth as well as uphold or enhance existing smoking regulations.
  • E-cigarette use is not allowed on any school property in B.C.
  • E-cigarettes containing nicotine or making health claims are banned for sale in Canada.