E-cigarettes: A danger to children and youth
An electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) is a small battery-operated device that can look like a real cigarette. Some look like small flashlights or fountain pens, often with a large clear chamber for storing liquid. Instead of burning tobacco, the e-cigarettes vaporize a so-called e-liquid, which is then inhaled.
E-cigarettes are made of three parts:
- An inhaler cartridge that holds an e-liquid (with or without nicotine, which is the addictive and toxic ingredient found in traditional cigarettes).
- The vaporizer, which heats and turns the liquid into a vapour that is meant to resemble and be inhaled like smoke.
- A battery of varying voltage that powers the e-cigarette.
The number of children and teens using e-cigarettes is on the rise. E-cigarettes feature “cool” designs and the e-liquids are offered in a variety of candy and fruit flavours. Both are readily available. E-cigarettes are also used and promoted by many celebrities in magazines, movies and music videos.
How do e-cigarettes work?
When the user draws on the mouthpiece, the battery powers the vaporizer and heats the e-liquid in the inhaler cartridge. The e-liquid is turned into a vapour and then is inhaled and exhaled like a regular cigarette. This is referred to as “vaping” and is officially recognized as a new verb in some dictionaries.
Are e-cigarettes dangerous?
Some parents may choose e-cigarettes as a cessation method, but there is no evidence this is an effective therapy to quit smoking tobacco. E-cigarettes are often advertised as a ‘safer alternative’ to cigarettes since they don’t fill the lungs with toxic tobacco smoke. But e-cigarettes haven’t been scientifically tested or proven to help quit smoking. Because of this, no positive health claims for e-cigarettes can legally be made. On the other hand, e-cigarettes can be dangerous to a person’s health in many ways:
- On their own, the flavourings and propylene glycol (a chemical) in the e-liquid can irritate the lungs and worsen breathing problems like bronchitis and asthma. When heated, these ingredients change form and create toxins. Formaldehyde (a colourless gas) can be produced at levels higher than seen with regular cigarettes.
- The heating process also releases heavy metals from the materials used in the manufacturing of the e-cigarettes, at levels higher than regular cigarettes.
- The vapour can be harmful to the user and to people exposed to the second hand e-cigarette smoke.
- There is currently no legislation requiring warning labels, child-proof packaging, or labelling for the percentage of nicotine in the e-liquid. So users can’t rely on labelling to know whether nicotine is present in the e-liquid. And if there is nicotine, the concentration can vary.
- Like regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes with nicotine are linked to a many harmful effects on children and youth—from addiction to disruptive effects on the developing brain.
- E-cigarettes may lead to tobacco use in teens.
- The liquid nicotine used to refill e-cigarettes, even in small amounts, can be poisonous to a young child if ingested and also can be toxic if spilled on the skin.
- Batteries inside the e-devices have exploded on occasion.
What are signs of liquid nicotine poisoning?
Liquid nicotine poisoning can happen in three ways:
- absorbing it through the skin or eyes.
Symptoms of liquid nicotine poisoning can include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- A fast heartbeat
- Being jittery and shaky
- Difficulty breathing
If you suspect that your child has nicotine poisoning, immediately call your local poison control centre.
Are e-cigarettes legal and, if so, where can they be used in Canada?
E-cigarettes can be sold without nicotine. The sale of e-cigarettes with nicotine is illegal in Canada, yet they are still being sold online and in many convenience stores, gas stations and mall kiosks.
Because e-cigarettes are not regulated, there are currently no binding rules about accurate labelling or manufacturing.
Smoke-free bylaws have not included e-cigarettes. However, some municipalities and schools have banned their use in public places where smoking is not allowed. Some provinces are considering legislation.
What can parents do?
- Educate children and teens on the dangers and risks of using e-cigarettes and being exposed to second-hand e-cigarette vapour. You may want to use this opportunity to also discuss traditional tobacco use.
- Keep e-cigarettes, including their nicotine refills and empty cartridges, out of the reach of children and pets. Dispose of batteries in a safe and environmentally sound manner.
- Never use e-cigarettes around a child. Ideally, limit use of e-cigarettes to places where smoking is permitted.
- Pregnant or nursing mothers should not use e-cigarettes or be exposed to their secondhand vapours.
- Consult the Canadian Paediatric’s Society’s recommendations on protecting children and youth from the dangers of e-cigarettes.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Adolescent Health Committee
- Community Paediatrics Committee
- Drug Therapy and Hazardous Substances Committee
Last Updated: March 2015