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Gerry ChidiacIn 1973, the band Brownsville Station released the song Smokin’ in the Boys Room. At the time, nearly half of Canadian adults and teens smoked.

Reports had been coming out for years about the dangers of tobacco use but smoking was still seen as a cool thing to do.

Over the next several decades, the medical evidence became quite clear: two-thirds of smokers would die due to their use of tobacco.

Legislation changed and we were not allowed to smoke in buses, on planes, in restaurants, at work or in any public place.

Smoking lost its cool appeal and by 2017, less than 15 percent of the overall population smoked and fewer than eight percent of Canadian teens used tobacco regularly.

Among other things, there was no more “smokin’ in the boys room” because smoking was strictly forbidden on school property for everyone.

Life expectancies in many countries were increasing and it seemed humanity had turned a page in health consciousness.

Then came vaping.

Over the last several years, vaping has become commonplace among teens and young adults. Roughly 23 percent of high-school-age Canadians vape and this has become a serious issue in our educational system.

Where it was relatively easy to catch students smoking tobacco in school due to the smell and type of smoke, vaping products merely cause a bit of vapour, which dissipates quickly. Students vape in washrooms but they’re very hard to catch. Alarm systems are available and are being considered, but it needs to be determined if their use would violate students’ civil liberties.

How did we get into this mess and what can we do about it?

Vaping products came onto the market relatively recently and advertisers tell us they help people quit smoking cigarettes. They’re also presented as less harmful. And they fill a niche in the market where there’s a lack of legislation.

The devices are generally sleek and easy to conceal, and the cost of these products has been dropping dramatically.

They’re also sold everywhere. If teens are unable to buy them in stores due to age restrictions, they can often buy them online.

In addition, the nicotine liquid used in vaping products is available in many fun flavours, from mango to bubblegum. They appeal to young people, who are largely unaware of the ease of addiction or of any other health dangers. In fact, I’ve heard students say, “Vaping isn’t bad for you like cigarettes.”

However, a recent outbreak of lung disease apparently related to vaping has changed that narrative.

“Vaping exposes users to many different substances for which we have little information about related harms – including flavourings, nicotine, cannabinoids and solvents,” U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said in a statement recently. Hundreds of people have been hospitalized.

I’ve found it difficult to counter the argument that vaping isn’t as harmful as cigarettes because there’s little hard evidence about the risks of vaping. According to Health Canada, “The long-term consequences of vaping are unknown.”

Perhaps the greatest concern is that vaping may alter teen brain development. If we don’t act quickly, we could have a whole new generation of adults addicted to nicotine.

So what can we do?

The good news is that we’ve been down this road before. Hard medical facts, advertising restrictions and effective legislation greatly reduced the percentage of people who smoked. We were also able to create a change in public perception – cigarettes went from being cool to being nasty.

We can do the same with vaping. But we need to remember that corporations that have invested in vaping products are taking every opportunity to create lifelong customers, and they’re very good at marketing.

The future is clearly in our hands. Parents, educators, medical professionals and legislators need to get together with effective counter programs in order to assure that “vapin’ in the boys’ room” also becomes a thing of the past.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.

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