Public schools in Durham region are trying to crack down on vaping and officials say a growing number of secondary students are being warned and ticketed for vaping on school property.
At Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby, Ont., administrators locked a bathroom on a secluded hallway off the cafeteria to prevent students from vaping there. When asked about it by a CBC Toronto reporter, an official said that particular bathroom would be unlocked from now on.
But the problem of vaping in schools, which has led to an increase in the number of school complaints against students, is prompting a Durham Region health department official to speak out. Students are said to be vaping in hallways, bathrooms and even classrooms.
In all of 2018, the region received under 20 complaints and issued two tickets against students. In 2019, from January to September, the region received 130 complaints, issued 15 tickets and gave more than 100 warnings. Since September of this year, the region has received 12 complaints.
Ross MacEachern, manager of health protection for the Durham Region health department, is calling on the Ontario government to tighten its controls around vaping and to treat vaping the same way it treats smoking when it comes to labels, packaging, sales and distribution.
"I think there needs to be stricter controls from the government," MacEachern said on Tuesday.
"I think it needs to be similar to how they have controlled tobacco. Nicotine content is also a huge concern. The last thing we want is for the students to become addicted to nicotine by vaping and then turn to cigarettes or some other type of substance."
Rise in number of complaints called 'significant'
MacEachern said the region is trying to do its part through enforcement of the Smoke Free Ontario Act because there has been a "significant" increase in the number of school complaints this year compared to last year.
"It is obviously an issue and it's a key focus for our division," he said.
The region has a new smoking and vaping bylaw that came into effect on Monday. The bylaw prohibits smoking and vaping in workplaces and public places, expanding on the list of places where smoking and vaping are prohibited under the provincial law.
Tobacco enforcement officers responding to complaints
MacEachern said the region has tobacco enforcement officers who inspect schools when complaints are made by administrators about students vaping on school property. The officers investigate complaints, issue warnings, and if they are able to collect enough evidence, can proceed with tickets against students.
A student can also be fined a set amount of $305. Officers will provide smoking or vaping "cessation" materials if need be.
MacEachern said a fine would be issued if it was a repeat offence. "Generally, we are not really at the stage where we would initially issue a fine unless it is really an ongoing problem at the school," he said.
The health department also works closely with school boards to provide presentations for students, staff and parents about vaping and to explain the harms associated with vaping and smoking, he added.
"It's a significant problem that unfortunately we don't think is going to go away soon enough," he said.
MacEachern said locking bathrooms may not be the solution because of safety concerns, but: "I do know that the schools are working as hard as they can to try to address the incidences of smoking and vaping on school property. I know it's a very challenging issue."
Minister 'increasingly concerned' about youth vaping
As for the provincial government, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott's office indicated in an email to CBC Toronto on Tuesday that she is aware of the issue.
"In light of growing evidence, Minister Elliott is increasingly concerned about the prevalence and health consequences of youth vaping," ministry spokesperson David Jensen said in the email.
"As such, and in addition to the initiatives already underway to prevent youth uptake of vaping products, the ministry of health is actively looking to partner with leading experts through informal roundtables to better understand these challenges and begin to identify practical solutions that would meaningfully improve health outcomes."
Jensen said the province is working with Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada and other provinces "to develop tools for the surveillance and monitoring of acute pulmonary illnesses and death associated with vaping."
Under the Smoke Free Ontario Act, the use of an electronic cigarette to vape any substance is prohibited in enclosed workplaces, including schools, on the grounds of primary and secondary schools, and public areas within 20 metres of the perimeter of those school grounds.
"As information on vaping continues to grow, Ontario will continue to monitor the evidence and will take action, as appropriate," Jensen said.
'Our principals are on top of it'
Dan Hogan, substance abuse and violence prevention co-ordinator of safe schools department for the Durham District School Board, said the board has noticed an increase in the numbers of students vaping in the last five years. The board has heard reports of elementary school students vaping.
"It's not your typical students you would expect, not the students who you would associate with smoking, but students who may not have smoked. We are also seeing those students migrating to tobacco as well, which is very concerning," he said.
Hogan said the health effects have not yet caught up to students who have begun to vape.
"It's much easier to hide than tobacco. The smells are different. They can control the amount of vape coming out. They'll vape into their shirts to hide the vapour. These are disturbing trends. Certainly, our principals are on top of it."