Teens’ Brain Development is Going Up in Smoke

A survey of nearly 40,000 Canadian youngsters shows the increasing prevalence of vaping and how it intersects with other substance use.


Vaping, or using e-cigarettes, has become very popular over the past few years, especially among high school students. Although vapes were originally developed to help adult cigarette smokers quit smoking, they have now reached beyond the targeted audience. To put it into perspective, in 2019, 20% of Canadian high students had reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

Vaping in adolescence

Vapes are attractive to young people because they are portable, flavoured, and help to reduce stress. However, the majority of the stress-reducing effects caused by vaping are due to nicotine — the addictive chemical found in cigarettes. In adolescence, nicotine is known to slow brain development, negatively affect memory and concentration, and increase impulsive behaviour. Vaping has also been correlated with worse mental health outcomes and nicotine addiction among teenagers.

What’s in a vape?

Three forms of e-cigarettes can be purchased: nicotine vapes, nicotine-free vapes, and dual-use vapes (nicotine and nicotine-free). Although nicotine-free vapes don’t contain the addictive chemical, nicotine-free vapes come with their own health consequences. Vapes with and without nicotine contain on average 22 chemicals (also referred to as toxins) in addition to nine flavouring chemicals, all of which are directly inhaled into the user’s lungs. Unsurprisingly, inhalation of these chemicals has been linked to various cardiovascular diseases.

Nonetheless, the negative health outcomes of vaping are evident, as well as the popularity of vapes among Canadian teenagers. Yet previous research into this topic has neglected distinctions between nicotine and nicotine-free vape users, and has yet to assess whether the different types of vape users have different health outcomes.

Current research on vaping in Canadian adolescents

To fill this gap, a new research study published in the journal Children, conducted out of the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at Brescia University College and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Western University, set out to explore the prevalence of nicotine, nicotine-free, and dual-use vaping in Canadian high schoolers (Grades 9 to 12) as well as the effects of vaping on current alcohol and cannabis use, based on consumption of alcohol and/or cannabis in the passed 30 days.

Of the 38,229 adolescents from across Canada who completed the survey, 29% reported vaping at least once in the past month. Of that, 42% vaped nicotine-only vapes, 10% vaped nicotine-free vapes, and 48% vaped dual-nicotine vapes.

Within the adolescents that vaped, males had higher odds of being vape users compared to females. Grade 10 and 11 students were more likely to be nicotine vape users compared to Grade 9s, while Grade 9s were more likely to be dual-vape users compared to Grade 12 students. Furthermore, nicotine vape users were 972% more likely to be alcohol consumers as well compared to non-vape users. Similarly, nicotine vape users were associated with 1,048% increased chance of also being cannabis users compared to non-vape users.

What does this all mean?

Altogether, these results suggest that vape use seems to be increasingly common among Canadian adolescents, with the majority of teenagers inhaling vapes that contain the addictive chemical nicotine. Furthermore, negative health outcomes seem to be highly correlated with vape use, including an increased risk of lifetime alcohol and cannabis use.

It is clear from this study that targeted public health initiatives around vaping in youth are warranted, as well as stricter regulations for vapes in Canada (i.e., increasing the age at which vapes can be purchased).

All in all, a big takeaway for anyone of any age is that inhaling toxic chemicals through vaping can be harmful to our health, but it can be especially harmful to people whose brains are still developing (i.e., anyone younger than 25 years old).

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.