The vaping debate: Health officials express concerns about long-term effects

The use of electronic cigarettes is increasing, particularly among teenagers

Chris LeSurf exhales after drawing on an e-cigarette. The devices are the subject of new government regulations and concerns among health authorities.

Fourteen-year-old Colton picked up his first electronic cigarette at a corner store about a year ago. It was grape-flavoured.

He was with four friends and each of them bought one to try.

The young teen had never smoked before. He puffed on it for a few hours and then bought more.

A couple of weeks later, he switched from disposables to the refillable type, and now carries it with him.

Puffing on the device gives him “something to do,” he says, and the hundreds of flavours available keep him intrigued.

Fifteen-year-old Quentin was under no pressure from friends when he tried e-cigarettes last year – he was already a smoker.

Like Colton, Quentin liked the taste of the e-juices. As his use of e-cigarettes increased, his use of tobacco cigarettes lessened, and he eventually stopped.

Now, he uses neither.

“I stopped because I wanted to be healthy and stop wasting money,” Quentin explained.

The use of e-cigarettes has increased in popularity in recent years, particularly among teens, and that has not gone unnoticed by school administrators.

In Abbotsford, the school district considers use of e-cigarettes the same as tobacco products.

“In short, smoking and the use of tobacco products by students is not permitted on school grounds,” said Dave Stephen, manager of district communications.

The provincial government also introduced legislation to regulate e-cigarettes under the Tobacco Control Act this year, but critics say the product shouldn’t be treated the same as traditional cigarettes.

People mainly pick up e-cigarettes to either quit smoking or as a hobby, according to Chris LeSurf, manager of Vapology in Mission.

LeSurf, 21, started smoking five years ago, and says he was able to quit after he tried e-cigarettes, also known as vaping (vapourizing).

He has met others who kicked their decades-long habit with the help of e-cigarettes.

Vaping is similar to smoking, except the user is inhaling vapour instead. A vape pen is made of a tank for the liquid, a mouthpiece, a coil to light up, and a rechargeable battery.

Premium e-juices are mostly composed of four ingredients: propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavouring and nicotine.

The idea is to begin with an e-juice that contains a high dose of nicotine, then gradually decrease the amount of the addictive substance until it is absent.

LeSurf is convinced vaping is not harmful and is much cleaner than smoking.

“Vaping is wet, not a dry smoke, so it’s easier on your body,” he said, explaining the technology is similar to inhalers.

“I feel better vaping. My lungs aren’t as heavy, my fingers don’t stink, and there are no butts on the ground.”

Hobbyists build their own battery-operated pens by experimenting with different coils and wattage to get the best flavour out of an e-juice. It’s called cloud chasing.

“It’s all personal preference,” said LeSurf, whose shop has shelves lined with flavours like fudge brownie, strawberry champagne, and white chocolate candy cane — his current favourite.

There is also a sample bar for users.

At Abbotsford’s Dragon Vapes on Essendene Avenue, people ranging in age trickle in and out throughout the day.

Owners Gabriel Malt and Vyvy Ly opened the store last fall after seeing a local demand for e-cigarettes and related supplies.

Visitors can vape and socialize. There’s a small bar, a set of couches, and plenty of standing room.

Malt believes vaping is a better alternative to cigarettes, but maintains the industry is under attack from government.

The new rules, which are not yet in effect, will prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes in public buildings and use on public and private school grounds, as well as indoor public spaces and workplaces.

“Politicians are not educated about the industry,” said Malt,

noting the vaping community regulates itself already by not serving anyone under 19.

He agrees some rules are needed, such as not selling to minors, but other regulations, such as no retail displays or advertising where they can be seen by youth, are going too far.

“We’d have to tint our windows and close our display cases,” Malt said. “If we can’t vape in the store, you can’t find the flavour that works for you.”

Malt is worried the new regulations will lead to taxation on the product and bans on certain flavours. He’s educating his customers on the new rules, and encourages local residents to contact their MLAs to voice opposition.

Health officials support the government’s move to regulate e-cigarettes because the effects of the product are still unknown.

“There is remarkably little evidence either way in how potentially damaging they are,” said Dr. Andrew Larder, a medical health officer with Fraser Health.

“The e-cigarettes that are available are unregulated. There is no quality control on the construction of the devices and the content of the solutions used in them. That itself is of significant concern.”

Larder also noted most of the products for sale are owned by tobacco companies, and consumers should be cautious about any claims made by the industry.

“We don’t know what’s in the vapour, or its long- and short-term effects,” said Larder, noting there is also scant evidence to show vaping is an effective cigarette cessation tool.

The public health officer believes the devices should be regulated like tobacco products and there should be age restrictions on buying them.

“It’s illegal to sell nicotine solutions in Canada,” Larder points out, adding e-cigarettes containing nicotine should regulated by Health Canada and treated the same as nicotine gum.

“The smoke that comes out is not as pristine as people like to think,” he explained. “The product is heated, similar to cigarette smoke.”

He is concerned teens are being targeted by product manufacturers and worries it could be a gateway to cigarette use.

“It renormalizes the behaviour of smoking… it normalizes the behaviour of puffing on a device in public places.”

Until more is known about e-cigarettes, Larder said public health physicians are encouraging municipalities to change bylaws to treat e-cigarettes the same as tobacco cigarettes.

Above photo: When new government regulations on e-cigarettes take effect, Gabriel Malt, co-owner of Dragon Vapes in Abbotsford, will have to conceal his retail displays featuring vape pens and other related products.