TORONTO - The majority of Canadians are concerned about the use of e-cigarettes among youth, with almost 90 per cent backing a ban of the vaping products for those under 18, a national survey suggests.
The survey by the Angus Reid Institute, released Tuesday, found that support for prohibiting vaping among minors crossed all age and gender demographics, among tobacco smokers and non-smokers alike.
"The one big take-away is that concern about vaping really does focus and centre on the impact on children," said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the non-profit polling organization based in Vancouver.
In the online survey of 1,500 adults aged 18 and older, 75 per cent of respondents said government should be able to make rules for packaging and labelling of e-cigarettes; 69 per cent agreed promotion and marketing of vaping products should be restricted; and 62 per cent endorsed the idea that flavoured versions should be taken off the market.
However, support for a ban on flavoured liquids used in e-cigarettes was not universal. While 58 per cent of those aged 55-plus strongly supported the notion of banning flavoured e-cigarettes, only a third of those 18 to 34 agreed with the idea.
"Certainly when we see millennial or younger Canadian respondents saying that they are less inclined to support the ban of fruit and bubble gum and other nice flavours of vaping products, we see that that is something that potentially holds some interest or appeal to them," said Kurl.
"Some of it has to do with what's marketed to them," she said, citing the adage "if you create it, people will buy it."
While the proportion of Canadians who smoke tobacco continues to decline — the smoking rate is now about 18 per cent — the survey suggests the prevalence of vaping is on the rise.
In 2013, Health Canada reported that 8.5 per cent of Canadians had tried e-cigarettes, a figure that jumped to 13.2 per cent in 2015. The Angus Reid survey conducted last month found 18 per cent of respondents had given vaping a try.
The organization also found that younger people and tobacco smokers are more likely to have engaged in vaping or to use e-cigarettes regularly.
More than a quarter of those aged 18 to 34 said they had tried vaping, while 14 per cent said puffing on an e-cigarette was routine.
Among tobacco users of all ages surveyed, 45 per cent of daily smokers and 40 per cent of occasional smokers reported also using e-cigarettes.
Angus Reid also looked at whether Canadians view vaping as being beneficial or harmful.
"Part of the existential conversation about e-cigarettes has been ... the notion that it would help smokers off-ramp from smoking cigarettes to something less harmful by no longer inhaling tobacco and hopefully eventually quitting," said Kurl.
"Smokers are far more likely to say that e-cigarettes have the potential to do more good than harm," she said. "If you've never tried smoking, never been a smoker, you're far more likely to say that vaping does more harm than good."
David Hammond, a tobacco control policy expert at the University of Waterloo, said that while many young people have tried e-cigarettes, what should be of most concern is whether they are just experimenting or if they are vaping on a regular basis.
"The simple equation is this: vaping may help some people to quit smoking. If it does that, it will have a public health benefit," said Hammond, commenting on the survey findings.
"Vaping may make some youth more likely to start (smoking). There's a strong association, but most of that is probably the type of kids that do risky behaviours. If you're going to try one, you're going to try the other."
Still, that could change.
On Tuesday, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration repeated a warning that e-cigarette use among young Americans has reached "epidemic" proportions.
"There’s a large pool of nicotine users that’s being created among kids by these products," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. "And some portion of them are at risk of transitioning to and risking addiction to cigarettes."
So the FDA has launched "The Real Cost" Youth E-Cigarette Prevention Campaign aimed at educating kids about the dangers of e-cigarettes, targeting almost 11 million Americans aged 12 to 17 who have used e-cigarettes or are open to trying them.
Among those products is JUUL, a high-nicotine e-cigarette that commands 70 per cent of the U.S. market — and was introduced to Canada earlier this month.
It's not yet clear what kind of impact the brand will have on the Canadian market, Hammond said, but the move is significant.
"The big question that public health and tobacco control people should ask themselves is are we potentially going to see what appears to have happened in the U.S., which is to say spikes in both e-cigarette use and potentially smoking?"
One place to start in order to curb vaping by young people is to ban products with such flavours as peanut butter and jam, cotton candy and unicorn horn, he said.
Such products "are probably going to do a lot more to appeal to kids than to help a 50-year-old smoker switch to vaping so he doesn't die from smoking."
— Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.