Youth Advisory Council targets teen vaping

Alarmed by both the prevalence of e-cigarettes and the serious illness and deaths attributed to vaping, area teens aligned with a Western research lab are lobbying all levels of government to crack down on the popular product.

Members of the Youth Advisory Council of Western’s Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEALab) are also lobbying for more research and improved detection and enforcement in schools. For teens already using e-cigarettes, the group is advocating for services helping them to quit.

“I see it all the time. People are vaping in class, in the back of the classroom,” said Grade 11 student Aliana Manji, a member of the advisory group. “They’re vaping in hallways, outside and especially in bathroom stalls, sometimes five people in a stall.”

While vaping is technically banned in and around schools, some students circumvent the rules or teachers overlook its use, Manji said.

Vaping was first marketed as a tool to help cigarette-smokers kick the habit. More recently, though, vaping products have become big business online and at corner stores – with fruit, candy and dessert flavours that critics say entice young people to start vaping even if they hadn’t considered cigarette smoking.

But a spate of acute respiratory illnesses, and at least 12 deaths in the United States, have prompted health officials across North America to urge young people to stop vaping.

This group has already won allies at the Middlesex-London Health Unit, where Medical Officer of Health Dr. Chris Mackie said youth insights offer important perspective to the issue

“There’s a great opportunity to collaborate with the HEALYAC to develop and implement a ‘by youth, for youth’ strategy to address the issue of vaping,” Mackie said.

The Youth Advisory Council consists of 14 London-and-area high-schoolers who influence youth-related health research that takes place at the HEALab at Western.

Geography professor Jason Gilliland, Director of the HEALab, said he polled the group on the top health issues facing them and their peers, and e-cigarettes were at the top of the list. “It was their collective voice recognizing that it’s an issue at every school,” Gilliland said.

The teens worked on the problem for about eight months: researching, writing a position statement and recommendations, then connecting with the health unit for support.

Eleanor Park, a Grade 12 student who will be part of a presentation to the health unit Thursday, said one evident gap has been a lack of solid public research about the health risks of vaping.  It’s also important, she said, that all students have access to support and information.

The role hit home a month ago as Canada’s first case of severe respiratory illness was a teen treated in London, she said. “It kind of broke my heart because a majority of students aren’t very aware of the complications of vaping.”

The group hopes local, provincial and federal governments will now take action.

Gilliland said he was impressed by the students’ initiative and insights.

“There’s this myth that teens are disengaged, that they don’t really care what’s going on in the world. This youth advisory council really busts that myth. They are all really involved, intelligent, engaged young people.”

Manji and Park said it’s important that youth advocate for, and with, other youth. Said Manji, “It’s not just adults telling teens to stop (vaping). It’s teens talking with teens.”

The recommendations, based on students’ review of existing research and their personal experiences:

  • More research needed: The long-term safety of nicotine addiction and of inhaling the chemicals found in vaping needs more and better research at local, provincial and federal levels.
  • Better coping strategies: Vaping is not an appropriate tool for stress management. Early addiction to nicotine can exacerbate symptoms of depression and alter brain development. School staff, parents and students should have more information on age-appropriate vaping-prevention and -cessation strategies.
  • Targeted messages: Governments need to aim health messages specifically at teens and disseminate them through channels and platforms accessed by youth.
  • Better enforcement: Ban vaping on all school property and improve monitoring, training, awareness and security. Schools are a good venue to detect and intervene, with more monitoring in gyms, hallways and other areas.
  • Effective regulation: Local governments should monitor and inspec stores selling vaping products to make sure no one younger than 19 has access. Vaping devices should be banned from variety stores. Add vaping information as part of schools’ health curriculum and establish electronic identity system to verify the age of online buyers of vaping products.