The rate at which young people in Canada take up smoking has failed to slow in recent years despite public health campaigns and widespread concern over future health implications, a new report shows.
The Youth Smoking Survey, released Monday by Health Canada, found that as many as 35 per cent of young Canadians have tried cigarillos, or "little cigars," which often come in candy or fruit flavours and are harshly criticized by health advocates.
The report also found the number of young people who identify themselves as current, daily smokers is on the rise in certain age groups.
"We're deeply concerned that the substantial decline in youth smoking has now stalled over the last four years and that, if anything, there's a slight increase in youth smoking," said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society.
The survey, conducted by the University of Waterloo's Propel Centre for Population Health Impact, found that while only 10 per cent of those in Grades 6 through 9 have ever tried cigarillos, that number jumps to 35 per cent among those in Grades 10 through 12.
It's the first time the survey has included cigarillos as a distinct category.
Health experts have long criticized the miniature cigarettes because they can be sold individually, instead of in a pack, and come in a variety of flavours. Anti-smoking advocates say they are designed to encourage young people to smoke, a claim that manufacturers have denied.
Federal legislation coming into effect in July will restrict the retail sale of flavoured cigarillos, and subsequent surveys will show whether this has an impact on youth smoking rates.
The survey found that among those who had never smoked a cigarette, 11 per cent of the Grade 10-to-12 students and 1 per cent of the Grade 6-to-9 students had tried cigarillos.
"The rates of use according to the survey are astonishingly high," said Neil Collishaw, research director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, an Ottawa-based advocacy group.
The survey also indicated that the number of young people who have never tried smoking did not change in 2008-2009, the most recent survey period, compared with the previous survey in 2006-2007.
Nearly 80 per cent of young people in Grades 6 to 9 said they had never tried smoking, compared with just over half of those in Grades 10 to 12 in the latest survey, similar to the previous one.
But the proportion of adolescents who identify themselves as current, daily smokers as opposed to those who occasionally take a puff of a cigarette is creeping up.
In the new survey, 13 per cent of people in Grades 10 to 12 called themselves current smokers, up from 11 per cent during the previous survey period. While only 3 per cent of those in Grades 6 to 9 called themselves current smokers, unchanged from 2006-2007, that number rose from 2 per cent in 2004-2005.
"It is a troubling development," Mr. Cunningham said. "The overwhelming majority of smokers begin as teens or preteens."
The survey also showed that young people who had tried smoking were more likely to dabble in alcohol or drugs such as marijuana. More than 90 per cent of those in Grades 10 to 12 who called themselves current smokers had also drunk alcohol in the previous year, as had 88 per cent of those in Grades 7 to 9 who were current smokers. For their non-smoking counterparts, the number who had tried alcohol in the past 12 months dropped to 57 per cent for the Grade 10-to-12 group and 20 per cent of those in Grades 7 to 9.
Young smokers were also much more likely to use drugs. For instance, the survey found that more than 80 per cent of smokers in Grades 10 to 12 had tried marijuana in the previous year, compared with just 17 per cent of those who had never tried smoking.