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California Districts Fight Student Vaping in Schools

By Lauren Katims - Rep: May 7, 2019

By the time Makayla Klug, now a senior at Laguna Beach High School, turned 8, she was put on bed rest to manage her physical pain. Doctors diagnosed her with meningitis, optic-neuritis and encephalitis – inflammatory diseases that kept her off her feet for nearly two years.

Her family lived next to a longtime fire station, and Klug’s mom eventually made the connection that the sickness was most likely caused by exhaust from outdated fire trucks and poor ventilation, which contaminated Klug’s home.

Laguna Beach city officials refuted the cause, and before the family could build its case, the deadline for suing the city had passed and the case was closed. But, for Klug, who suffers dizziness and headaches whenever she breathes any form of smoke, from exhaust to tobacco, it will never be over.

"Secondhand smoke is a silent killer, and I feel like a lot of people don’t realize it’s harming them," Klug says. "I do. I instantly know it’s hurting me because I can feel it."

Klug told her story, and a group of fellow students told theirs, at a 2017 Laguna Beach City Council meeting. The students’ personal stories of how tobacco products affect their lives helped get a citywide smoke-free ordinance passed – the first in Orange County. Soon after, students from a nearby city, Dana Point, had the same success.

"We’re cultivating youth ambassadors to go forth and spread the correct information," says Stephan Lambert, county prevention coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education, who works with the local Tobacco-Use Prevention Education (TUPE) program to help the students prepare for events like this.

It’s this type of educational focus – one that’s fostered a stigma around cigarettes and helped to enact decades of tobacco-use restrictions – that’s helped California achieve the second-lowest adult smoking rate in the country, behind Utah. And it is why health officials are now using a similar approach to tackle e-cigarettes.

Vaping, or inhaling from an electronic smoking device that heats a pod of chemically packed liquid to an aerosol form, has become a public health epidemic across California schools and nationwide, with e-cigarette use increasing by 78 percent among high school students between 2017 and 2018, and 48 percent among middle schoolers, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Studies link vaping to heart disease, high risk of stroke, depression and addiction; one pod cartridge that’s inserted into the vaping device can contain as much nicotine as one pack of cigarettes, says John Pierce, professor emeritus of cancer prevention at University of California–San Diego School of Medicine and Moores Cancer Center, who works closely with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

But media influences from the tobacco industry – leading tobacco company Altria invested billions in e-cigarette maker Juul – offering thousands of vape flavor choices and sleek, electronic smoking devices, are sending kids mixed messages, health experts agree.

And students are paying attention: Many promote it as a glamorized habit; Instagram alone has 15.4 million #vapelife posts.

"Vaping is really big," says Klug of her classmates. Klug gets a headache from breathing in the scented vape smoke; she compares the feeling to breathing in a strong perfume. "People who you would never think would Juul – your friends – become addicted."

In Northern California, Sarah Hagen oversees the Placer County Tobacco Prevention Program, one of more than 100 regional anti-tobacco programs funded by the CDPH. She and her colleagues work with parents and educators to keep them up to date on the latest vaping devices, some that look like standard objects in school, such as a USB flash drive or a pen, so they can recognize them in the classrooms and their homes.

"The focus is on working with parents and building that rapport in the community, so then we can ultimately create a change in policy," says Hagen of getting tighter regulations on flavorings, prohibiting new tobacco retailers from opening too close to schools and child care centers, and getting smoke-free city ordinances passed.

"(We want) people to understand that vaping, and all the products surrounding it, is no different than smoking cigarettes," she says.

California health officials were among the first to highlight the link between lung cancer and smoking cigarettes and, using funds from an increase in cigarette taxes in 1988, formed the country’s first and most comprehensive tobacco control program to reduce the social acceptability of tobacco use through media campaigns, school-based prevention programs and funding to local health departments and organizations.

It’s one of the reasons why deaths related to lung cancer are 28 percent lower in California than the rest of the country, according to UC—San Diego researchers in a recent study.

Research on vaping is emerging, but state health officials have been quick to link the harmful effects and educate the public, says Pierce, lead author of the study on lung cancer.

In 2015, the CDPH released a state health officer’s report on the dangers of e-cigarettes and launched a media campaign called Wake Up that educated adults about vaping.

It released another campaign last year in seven languages that teaches parents about the 15,500 e-juice flavors, such as marshmallow man, lemon drops and vampire kiss, that disguise the taste of tobacco and the devices that can be mistaken for everyday objects, according to the CDPH.

"I’m expecting that California will show a decline in e-cigarette uptake in the last couple of years," Pierce says.

At the school level, where vaping has become so pervasive nationwide that bathrooms have been shut down to prevent students from vaping in them – one school in Texas banned long-sleeve shirts to stop students from hiding the vape smoke in their sleeves – educators are seeing results by intervention methods versus punishment.

In the Conejo Valley school district in Ventura County, outside Los Angeles, administrators changed the suspension procedure for middle and high school students found vaping for the first or second time, and instead created an anti-vaping curriculum that students follow during a six-session Saturday school.

Other schools require students caught vaping to do a research paper on the dangers of vaping and how companies market the products to kids.

In Sonoma County, the Santa Rosa City Schools district is using a $1.37 million anti-tobacco grant from the California Department of Justice to hire several positions, including six tobacco prevention supervisors, one for each high school and its affiliated middle school, who will get a phone alert when vape smoke is detected in the bathrooms.

Santa Rosa administrators are also considering expanding vaping education services to younger students as a preventive strategy.

"You have to address a lot of things at the same time," says Lambert, from Orange County, citing schools implementing staff trainings, parent workshops, media campaigns, advocacy and intervention programs, cessation programs in multiple languages and anti-tobacco school policies.

"That’s when you start to see the results."

Lauren Katims is a freelance writer and editor based in Sacramento. This article was published in U.S. News & World Report.



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