Original Published on Sep 27, 2022 at 21:47
By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The end of mandatory masking and other COVID-19 protocols has once again put the widespread popularity of vaping among teens on display — a phenomenon that continues to cause concern among educators and experts.
A Winnipeg high school recently issued a reminder to students about its zero-tolerance policy on e-cigarette use, while the Manitoba Lung Association is preparing to roll out a new education and cessation campaign.
“There’s a number of issues that we haven’t faced during (the height of) COVID. As we return to normal, some of the normal annoyances return, too,” said Brian O’Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.
In a notice to families earlier this month, administrators at Seven Oaks’ West Kildonan Collegiate recently outlined their “commitment to eliminate vaping and large groups gathering in the washrooms.”
“Use of vapes cannot be in school or on school grounds. If necessary, we will suspend students who are vaping at school and will seek involvement of our school resource officer,” the email states.
O’Leary said there have been issues with large groups of teens meeting to vape in school washrooms, which has in turn caused other students to feel unsafe using the facilities.
Per Seven Oaks policy, student use, possession, distribution and being under the influence of illicit drugs is prohibited in all K-12 premises.
Following the final bell Monday, a Grade 11 student at West Kildonan — who was taking a vape break outside — said he and his peers often sneakily use the devices in school when they are craving nicotine.
The 16-year-old, who indicated he first tried vaping at 10, said he simply takes a puff of his device and sucks in the vapour for an extended period so he can breathe out without creating a cloud upon exhaling.
“I do it (during lessons) all the time. I’ve never gotten caught,” he said, adding his vape juice flavour of choice is watermelon-strawberry.
The teenager estimates 75 per cent of his Grade 11 classmates vape at least occasionally. He said he believes more students have started doing so, with help from older sources who purchase devices and juice on their behalf, amid the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Manitoba, it is illegal to sell tobacco and vapour products to anyone under the age of 18.
Health Canada’s stance is youth and non-smokers should never vape. The agency only classifies vaping as “less harmful… (but that) doesn’t mean harmless” for active smokers who are trying to quit.
The department’s website notes vaping nicotine can affect memory, concentration and alter brain development, lead to a nicotine addiction, and expose users to harmful chemicals and metals — from formaldehyde to aluminum — that cause lung damage.
Given the technology is fairly new, the long-term consequences of vaping are largely unknown.
The Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey found the prevalence of e-cigarettes, which has been on a steady rise over the last decade, surged among grades 7 to 12 students between 2016-17 and 2018-19.
The percentage of students who vape with or without nicotine within 30 days prior to filling out the study increased from 10 to 20 per cent. Forty per cent indicated they vape on a daily or almost daily basis.
Hailey Coleman, a nationally certified tobacco educator who specializes in counselling youth on quitting vaping, said she is fearful those statistics continue to grow.
“We know, talking to teachers, that youth have been extra stressed and working from home in the last two years,” said Coleman, health programs and operations co-ordinator for the Manitoba Lung Association.
The association is planning to roll out the high school edition of Lungs are for Life (mylungsr4life.ca), a free tobacco education and prevention curriculum, across the province next month.
An elementary version, focused on overall lung health and peer pressure, is already in upwards of 200 schools. The mature version discusses addiction, mindfulness and quitting strategies via grab-and-go lesson plans and online resources.
“We know that students who are vaping are addicted to nicotine,” Coleman said. “So now, how do we work with the schools on helping them have a safe space to work with their addiction, to make it through class with their cravings, to help them with their mental health?”
The association, in partnership with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and others, helped fund the 2020-21 Youth and Young Adult Vaping Project. Nearly 250 Manitobans between the ages of 16 and 24 were involved in the national research to gauge regular users’ vaping behaviours.
Local youth reported engaging in an average 33.8 “vaping episodes,” each of which consists of an average seven puffs, on a daily basis. The respondents began vaping at 15.5 years old, on average.
Fifty-three per cent of participants disclosed they had experienced negative side-effects, while 22 per cent said they felt pressure from others to vape.
Only half of those aged 16-18 indicated a parent was aware of their substance use.