Youth vaping problem nets research dollars

Vaping among teenaged Canadians has doubled in the past two years – a troubling trend that three Western researchers will examine in depth with new funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR.)

The researchers are working to understand the rapid rise of vaping in Canada and measure its effects on young people.

Among 27 projects across Canada funded through CIHR’s Health Effects of Vaping Catalyst Grants – a partnership with the Canadian Cancer Society ­– Western’s researchers will study the availability and accessibility of vaping products, dissect youths’ motivations for vaping and will delve into the lung health of people who vape.

Jamie Seabrook and Jason Gilliland, Brescia University College, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Health Sciences, Social Sciences – availability and proximity of vape shops in neighbourhoods and school zones

Jamie Seabrook and a team of researchers from Western will examine how the accessibility of vape retailers and municipal and school board vaping policies vary in relation to the proximity of schools and the characteristics of neighbourhoods throughout Ontario.

“To tackle this problem, it is critical that we gain a better understanding of the socio-ecological factors influencing youth exposure to vaping, including environmental (social and physical) and policy determinants. It is in these spheres where changes have the greatest potential impact on health at the population level,” said Seabrook, associate professor at Brescia and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

The project consists of three objectives: First, it will understand Ontario vape retailers in relation to schools (elementary and secondary) and neighbourhoods. Second, it will analyze vaping-related regulations and policies within Ontario municipalities and school boards to identify how they address youths’ potential exposure to vaping. Finally, it will examine how potential policies for restricting vaping locations might have an impact on the accessibility of vape retailers.

The team of researchers includes Jamie Seabrook and Jason Gilliland as co-principal applicants, and co-applicants Kelly Anderson, Gina Martin and Jacob Shelley.

Jason Gilliland, Social Sciences, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Health Sciences – teens’ motivations for vaping

Jason Gilliland has teamed up with researchers from the University of Nottingham, the University of Calgary, and Western, along with collaborators from the London District Catholic School Board, the Middlesex London Health Unit, and Southwestern Public Health to take a novel ‘by-youth-for-youth’ approach to understanding teenagers’ motivations for, and experiences with, vaping. By involving teens as co-researchers in the project, they aim to develop the concept for a youth-informed education campaign.

Gilliland will co-lead the project with Stephanie Coen, a former postdoctoral student in Gilliland’s lab and now at the University of Nottingham, to generate evidence on teenage vaping to ensure that research and educational resources resonate with them.

The researchers hope to understand how factors such as gender, race, socio-economic circumstances, and place – as well as physical distancing because of COVID-19 – shape teenagers’ vaping. Experts will gain insights into the roles of school, home, online and retail environments in influencing teens’ pre-pandemic vaping, as well as their vaping during and after the pandemic.

To encourage candid discussions about vaping, researchers will hold online focus groups where teenagers can use avatars and pseudonym screen names to participate, as well as in-person friendship group interviews when face-to-face contact resumes.

“Prevalence of vape use among Canadian youth has doubled in the past couple of years, with nearly 1 in 12 secondary school students now vaping daily or almost daily. Creative solutions are urgently needed to produce the kind of evidence required to help combat what is rapidly becoming a public health crisis in Canada and many other nations,” said Gilliland, professor in Social Sciences, Health Sciences and Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

Grace Parraga and Dr. Constance Mackenzie, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry – lung function among people who vape

Building on established research using MRI to better understand lung health, Grace Parraga and Constance Mackenzie, and a team of researchers will study how e-cigarette vapours affect the structure and function of the small airways and alveoli in the lung. The team aims to develop MRI biomarkers that can identify respiratory and cardiovascular disease endpoints related to inflammation, and directly compare vapers with cigarette users and with those who both vape and smoke cigarettes.

“During the COVID19 pandemic, we have been reminded that lung health is critical for overall health and our quality of life,” said Parraga, professor at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Canada Research Chair in Lung Imaging to Transform Outcomes. “With the rapid rise in vaping in Canada, particularly among children and teenagers who have never smoked tobacco cigarettes before and in adults trying to quit tobacco cigarette smoking, research is urgently needed to understand the long-term health effects of vaping.”

The findings from their lung imaging research to-date points to subtle but irreversible changes in the lungs in vapers who have no symptoms, and highly abnormal irreversible findings in symptomatic vapers.

Parraga says the CIHR funding is timely and critically needed to help measure these changes in 50 young vapers and older tobacco cigarette smokers who turn to vaping to help them quit. They hope their results will help inform children and adult vapers and their families as well as policy-makers and physicians to the short- and long-term risks of vaping.