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Youth vaping on the rise, says Simcoe-Muskoka health unit

High school, health unit working to discourage vaping and educate students in Collingwood

Based on recent statistics from the local health unit, the number of area teens using vaping products within the last year was above the provincial average.

Up to 23 per cent of Ontario students from grades 7 to 12 report having used vaping products within the past year, but in Simcoe-Muskoka, that number leaps to 32 per cent.

While the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit says they’ve been working hard to curb youth vaping with efforts extending into Collingwood schools, some students say it isn’t enough and that some of those efforts might be falling on deaf ears. The health unit is also noting they’re attending schools for reports of vaping on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis.

CollingwoodToday spoke with nine CCI students during their lunch break this week, ranging from Grade 9 to Grade 12. All nine said they don’t vape themselves, but they have friends that do.

When asked to estimate as a percentage how many CCI students vape, the student answers ranged from 30 per cent to 75 per cent, depending on whether they were counting students who vape regularly versus those who have just tried it or vape upon occasion.

“A lot. Probably like almost the whole school,” said Grade 10 student Arusha. “A lot of people do it to help when they’re struggling with mental health. Or, they do it because it feels good.”

Students said those who vape do so on the sidewalk or an area adjacent to school property called The Pit, however all the students confirmed there have been many occasions where they have seen other students vaping in the school washrooms.

“But, teachers check in there,” said Grade 9 student Ben. “When it comes to people who vape, I don’t really mind that they do that. I mind my own business. Just don’t get me involved if you ever get in trouble.”

One student pointed out that the marketing can play a role.

“They have bubble gum flavours. They have unicorn shake. I don’t think anyone can resist that,” said Grade 9 student Sophia. “People do what they do with their lives, but it’s not good for you,”

Grade 10 student Heidi said sometimes young people will vape to help them deal with struggles within their personal lives.

“(It causes) a head rush. It’s safer for you than other stuff that’s really, really bad for you,” she said.

Heidi recalls that the school did a presentation on the dangers of vaping, but it didn’t really make an impact.

“I think you just do it more to retaliate,” she said.

“Someone hot-boxed the bathroom in protest,” Sophia said, with a laugh.

Electronic cigarettes are commonly called vapes, e-cigs, mods, or pens. They come in many styles, from box-like shapes to small flat USB-like sticks. They all have the same basic parts: a mouthpiece, a heating element, a tank or pod to hold liquid, and a battery.

E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid until it turns into an aerosol, the user then inhales the aerosol. The liquid may or may not contain nicotine. 

According to the Ontario Student Drug and Health Survey, the number of students in Grades 7 to 12 who reported using vaping products in the past year doubled from 11 per cent in 2017 to 23 per cent in 2019, with 13 per cent – representing approximately 105,600 students – vaping weekly or daily.

According to data from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU), in Simcoe and Muskoka, 32 per cent of students in grades seven to 12 reported using an e-cigarette in the past year, with this number jumping to 43 per cent when looking at only high school students, a rate significantly higher than the provincial rate.

While initially marketed as a way to help people to stop smoking tobacco cigarettes in the mid-2000s, e-cigarettes quickly gained popularity among people who don’t smoke, including youth.

“Nicotine changes brain development and negatively affects memory, concentration and behaviour, and contrary to misconception, vaping does not relieve stress among youth, and can actually increase anxiety and depression,” noted Dr. Charles Gardner, chief medical officer of health for the SMDHU, in a recent column.

Work is being done at Collingwood Collegiate Institute (CCI) to discourage vaping and educate students on the potential consequences of using e-cigarettes. 

While CCI’s administrators did not agree to an interview for this story, the Simcoe County District School Board’s communication manager Sarah Kekewich sent an emailed statement outlining some of the work the school is doing.

“Staff at CCI have worked very hard to provide education for students about the risks of vaping, and to inform students and families of the consequences for those found to be vaping on school property,” wrote Kekewich.

Kekewich said school vice principal Karen Cross has been leading work at the school to curb vaping, including running a week-long information campaign as recently as last week in collaboration with the SMDHU.

“The partnership between CCI and the SMDHU has resulted in positive change,” wrote Kekewich.

Students participating in the school’s health and wellness program helped as well, by creating school announcements for vaping education week, putting up vaping prevention posters around school and hosting a lunchtime Take the Clouds Outside display to provide information and cessation support to other students.

At schools across the board, students found to be vaping on school property receive a three-day suspension. Following a student’s return from suspension, students meet with a health unit tobacco enforcement officer to receive further education on the effects of vaping.

“This year, we are proud to say that we have not found a repeat offender of a student vaping on school property after they have gone through this process,” wrote Kekewich.

While the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit declined to provide Collingwood-specific statistics, they did confirm that to date, for the 2023/24 school year, approximately 26 warnings and 11 charges have been issued across Simcoe and Muskoka primarily to students related to vaping inside a school or on school property.

Fines start at $305 for smoking or vaping on or near school property. Selling or supplying tobacco or vapour products to a young person under the age of 19 at school can result in fines starting at $490. If an adult, including a parent, purchases tobacco or vapour products for a child or young person under the age of 19, they can also be charged under the same provisions.

If cigarettes or vapour products are being sold from a locker or car, the person involved can be charged with a range of offences with fines starting at $365 for selling restricted products in a prohibited place and related offences with fines starting at $490.

“SMDHU tobacco enforcement officers attend all secondary school locations within Simcoe Muskoka at least once per year in compliance with the Ontario Public Health Standards,” said Steven Rebellato, vice president of SMDHU’s environmental health department.

“Due to vaping in schools, SMDHU tobacco enforcement officers are attending secondary schools repeatedly and on a weekly basis,” he said.

The SMDHU Smoke-Free Program team works closely with many schools and school boards in Simcoe Muskoka to address vaping among youth using the locally developed program Not An Experiment.

To visit the program’s website, click here.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 15 years of experience to her role as reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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