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In Ontario, 26 per cent of high school students said they vaped in the 2018-19 school year, compared with 18 per cent the previous year.The Associated Press

Nearly one-third of high school students in Alberta and Quebec and one in four in Ontario say they have vaped in the past month, according to new Canadian survey data that show sharp increases in e-cigarette use in the country’s four most populous provinces. British Columbia also saw increases, although not as high as the other provinces.

The e-cigarette data were collected from more than 75,000 students in Grades 9 to 12 in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec as part of the yearly COMPASS survey on health behaviour of high school students, believed to be the most comprehensive of its kind in Canada. The data are made available to policy makers and researchers who study youth and changes in alcohol, cannabis, e-cigarette, tobacco and other substance use.

“E-cigarette use has increased across all students regardless of their gender, grade, ethnicity or smoking status,” the researchers wrote in a summary of their findings prepared for the Public Health Agency of Canada and obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Quebec had the highest rates of vaping in 2018-19, with 32 per cent of students saying they used e-cigarettes in the past month, up from 27 per cent in the 2017-18 school year. Nearly 60 per cent of Quebec students said they had tried vaping at least once in 2018-19, compared with 52 per cent the previous year.

B.C. had the lowest rates, with 19 per cent of students saying they vaped in the previous month, up from 14 per cent the year before. About one-third of B.C. students say they had tried vaping at least once in 2018-19, compared with 29 per cent the year before.

In Ontario, 26 per cent of high school students said they vaped in the 2018-19 school year, compared with 18 per cent the previous year. In Alberta, 30 per cent of students say they vaped in the past month in 2018-19, compared with 23 per cent the year before.

Scott Leatherdale, principal investigator of the survey and professor at the University of Waterloo, said that five years ago, e-cigarettes were barely on the radar of high school students. In the 2013-14 school year, for instance, only 8 per cent of Ontario students said they had vaped in the previous month. The sudden and rapid rise in the last few years highlights how desirable e-cigarettes have become, Dr. Leatherdale said, adding that industry advertising, particularly on social media, may be contributing to the problem. “It was a trendy thing for youth to try,” he said.

The data come amid growing concerns over the rising rates of youth vaping and the possible health risks of e-cigarettes. This week, doctors in London, Ont., published a case study on a 17-year-old boy who nearly died after vaping earlier this year. Doctors say his chronic lung disease is likely tied to diacetyl exposure, a chemical that is used as a common flavour ingredient. According to the case study, diacetyl is found in the majority of e-cigarettes, even when product labels say otherwise.

Dr. Leatherdale the survey findings show that vaping is now firmly entrenched in youth culture. He said that he and his colleagues have talked to many students about their vaping habits and the students generally don’t seem aware of any potential negative consequences linked to e-cigarettes. For instance, Dr. Leatherdale said many high school athletes report using vaping products and say they don’t believe it will negatively affect their performance.

“I think up until recently, people thought it was a safer alternative,” he said.

Les Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, an Edmonton-based tobacco-control advocacy organization, said the findings paint a grim picture.

“This data confirms our worst fears,” he said, adding that the increase in youth vaping may be contributing to more youth starting to smoke.

In September, a coalition of health groups called on the federal government to take immediate steps to address the youth vaping crisis, including banning advertisements as well as the sale of most flavoured vaping products. In recent weeks, several provinces have moved to further restrict e-cigarette marketing.

Ontario has said it will ban e-cigarette ads in convenience stores and gas stations as of Jan. 1. British Columbia is adopting a suite of new measures, such as requiring e-cigarettes to be sold in plain packages with mandatory health warnings. This week, a bill that would, among other things, restrict e-cigarette sales to those 21 and older passed second reading in PEI.

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