Stein column: Community correct to address youth vaping risks
In 1997, the Joe Camel advertising campaign was declared illegal because it promoted an addictive and dangerous product through a campaign that was attractive to those too young to purchase cigarettes legally.
Over 20 years later, vaping presents adolescents and children with the same addictive and dangerous substance in a new form — one that is pitched as safer than cigarettes and comes in a variety of child-friendly flavors such as blueberry doughnut, corn flakes, smores, peanut butter cup, and buttered popcorn.
This intentional advertising seems to be working yet again. After decades of progress in reducing teen smoking, vaping is responsible for an upturn in teen nicotine consumption.
Because of the potency of this drug, and the ease of ingesting it, young people are starting earlier and more quickly becoming addicted to a product we had already recognized as incredibly dangerous.
As we know, additional chemicals are included in the vaping process, and the early onset of nicotine addiction opens the neural pathways to further vulnerability to additional drug addiction. Contrary to industry efforts to market vaping as a safe alternative to tobacco, vaping offers a pathway to early addiction and a gateway to even more serious substance abuse.
Our youth are vaping at an alarming rate. According to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 53% of high school students in the Roaring Fork Schools reported that they have tried vaping nicotine, and 37% reported that they have vaped nicotine in the past 30 days —up from 21% in 2015.
Whereas 79% of high school students think it’s wrong to smoke cigarettes, only 46% feel there is a risk of harm from vaping. And, 66% of our students say it is easy to get vaping products.
Among regular users under the age of 18, 29% percent have purchased vaping products in a gas station, convenience store, grocery store, or drugstore during the past 30 days.
Earlier this month, I joined two dozen Roaring Fork Schools leaders and staff in signing a letter that asked the elected leaders in each of our communities to take action to address the epidemic rise in vaping by our children. Specifically, we asked leaders to pass four evidence-based prevention measures to reduce the prevalence of teenage nicotine consumption:
• Ban the local sale of flavored tobacco products.
• Raise the age to purchase any tobacco products from 18 to 21.
• Require tobacco retailers to be licensed and regularly inspected.
• Increase the price of tobacco products.
The Roaring Fork School District has undertaken great efforts over the past year, in partnership with our local communities, to respond to the vaping epidemic.
We hosted a regional forum resulting in a Valley Vaping Task Force and developed a protocol with Youth Zone, municipalities, and police departments to respond to vaping in schools.
We have provided extensive professional development for staff including producing a mandatory vaping training webinar for all secondary school teachers; providing additional professional development in middle and high schools; and offering specialized training such as Youth Mental Health First Aid for select staff members.
We adopted a comprehensive prevention program, including the Second Step social emotional behavioral curriculum for crew-based lessons that includes refusal skills and wellness curriculum; and we are offering substance abuse and wellness presentations to all coaches and athletes.
We also adopted a comprehensive vaping response protocol including age-appropriate intervention and education for first-time offenders followed up by traditional discipline for repeat offenders; for students struggling with addiction, we are offering intensive tobacco cessation programming, cognitive behavioral therapy groups, and individual substance abuse support.
We launched an extensive parent and community education series including filming and producing an on-line vaping module for parents, hosting parent coffee houses and school presentations.
We have partnered with community organizations as well as state and local governments to increase mental health and prevention services in our schools.
We know that there is particular resistance to the flavor ban, on the argument that many adults are using vaping as a way to quit smoking. People didn’t need bubble-gum-flavored cigarettes to start smoking, so they shouldn’t need products disguised as children’s candy to help them switch to a nicotine consumption device they perceive as safer.
There are far more children learning to use tobacco through vaping than there are adults using vaping in an effort to quit tobacco. If we make tobacco products less appealing and accessible, we will see fewer youth starting the habit to begin with.
There is understandable resistance to raising the price of tobacco products through steeper taxes, especially by big tobacco companies and local nicotine merchants, but also by people who are genuinely struggling with addiction. This is why it is important that revenues from increased taxes be dedicated to prevention, intervention, and treatment programs; to mental health services to help people avoid or break out of the cycle of addiction; and to deal with the underlying causes of substance abuse.
We are proud of all that our communities are doing to make our children healthy and safe and hope that our communities will prioritize the health of children on this important issue.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools in the district including Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.
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