COMMENTARY || Treat vaping like tobacco with education and regulation

Alberta is the only province without laws preventing minors from owning vaping products. That needs to change, argues U of A teaching professor.

Alberta is the only province without laws preventing minors from owning vaping products, while every day (or so it seems) a new company, province, state or country is taking measures to restrict the sales of vaping products.

These products appeal to kids with fun-sounding and tasty flavours, bright packaging and targeted marketing that encourages a lot of kids not only to think it's OK for them to vape, but also to think it's harmless.

The similarities between vaping and smoking cigarettes are quite astounding. Most vaping products contain nicotine, which we know is a highly addictive chemical, and just like cigarettes, vaping products are being marketed in a manner that is appealing to youth. Recent Stanford studies demonstrate social media has been used to establish the popularity of Juul, a vaping product, amongst youth. Additionally, in the U.S., the FDA has also warned Juul of illegal marketing strategies that are thought to target youth.

Decades of research has shown us the dangers of the chemicals present in tobacco smoke, and now we are learning about the dangerous chemicals exposed through "vaping clouds." Even nicotine-free vaping products can be harmful as the safety of these ingredients is now being questioned.

The connections between tobacco cigarettes and vaping products should be even more transparent to us now following the news that the CEO of Juul has not only resigned, but has been replaced by a senior executive from Altria, which owns the tobacco brand Marlboro as well as a 35 per cent stake in Juul.

As a nurse, educator and parent of a young child myself, I find the rates at which vaping has been adopted highly concerning; and yet, I admit to having been ignorant of just how popular vaping has become, especially among our youth. But the more I learn about vaping, the more I can't help but ask myself: haven't we been here before?

I can still remember when people smoked everywhere. My mom once told me she smoked in her hospital bed after delivering me. But as a society, we seemed to have come to terms with-or at least to understand and accept-the dangers associated with smoking cigarettes and the secondary hazards of tobacco smoke.

The news is bursting with headlines about the rising rates of vaping-related illness in the United States. In Canada, the first known respiratory illness linked to vaping has officially been reported in a youth in London, Ont. We are finally getting a glimpse of the side-effects associated with this so called "harmless alternative to smoking."

Luckily, we've been here before-and now, we have the tools necessary for timely harm reduction.

For starters, we need more education. That's why the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Alberta is teaming up with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) to bring education directly to kids in classrooms. It's also why prominent health organizations in Alberta are drawing attention to rising rates of e-cigarette use among youth in the province.

Next, we need to treat vaping and vaping products just like we treat tobacco products and smoking. The lines between the two have become too blurred to ignore, and it's time we legislate and regulate vaping products in the same manner as we do tobacco. This legislation would treat vaping like the serious public health problem it is, particularly for kids, and particularly with flavoured products. Such legislation will provide our EPS partners with the tools they need to enforce laws aimed at reducing the accessibility and marketing of vaping products to youth.

Vaping may be a less harmful and useful tool in the transition away from smoking-but this should be treated as a harm reduction strategy, not something benign that should be encouraged in kids, and particularly those who don't already smoke.

Our kids' health is too important to gamble on the harmful side-effects of vaping; it's time to clear the air with education and legislation. Our kids' healthy future depends on it.

Kerry Rusk is an assistant teaching professor in the Faculty of Nursing and co-leader of the Youth V.A.P.E. program.

This opinion-editorial originally appeared Sept. 28 in the Edmonton Journal.