State Board of Education seeks policies to address increase in students using e-cigarettes

Concerned by the explosive increase in the number of young people using e-cigarettes, the State Board of Education on Tuesday said it will work to help districts enact enhanced policies to make schools tobacco- and vape-free and help students who have become addicted.

“I had no idea how serious this problem is,” Board Member Jim McNiece said after a presentation by school and health officials.

McNiece and other board members expressed alarm over the increased use by students of the battery-powered e-cigarettes that can deliver high quantities of nicotine and other harmful chemicals through a liquid. Board members also decried the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry aimed at young people.

“This is plain and simple, a drug that is tidied up to look like candy,” McNiece said.

From 2017 to 2018, the prevalence of e-cigarette use increased 78 percent, from 11.7 percent to 20.8 percent among U.S. high school students, which has erased recent declines in the use of other tobacco products by young people, according to a federal study. In 2017, 34.8 percent of Kansas high school students tried e-cigarettes and 10.6 percent said they regularly use e-cigarettes, according to a state survey.

Jordan Roberts, Youth Prevention Program Manager with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the state statistics of e-cigarette use have likely increased drastically since that survey. Roberts says when she speaks to students about the effects of e-cigarettes, she tells them “you’re kind of like the lab rat.”

The popular e-cigarette, JUUL, uses pods that contain the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, she said. The pods come in flavors such as cool mint, creme brûlée, fruit medley and mango and are packaged to look like candy.

Roberts said many districts are grappling with the issue and that recent work by KASB has helped some districts adopt policies to respond to the problem.

David Stubblefield, executive director of school administration for Blue Valley USD 229, said vaping has “exploded exponentially in the last two or three years.”

Students are able to hide smoking because some of the e-cigarette devices resemble USB flash drives or key fobs. The devices also are used to smoke marijuana or use other drugs, Stubblefield said.

He said the Blue Valley district confronted the issue by approving comprehensive policies banning tobacco and tobacco related products, starting education programs at the elementary school level and working on smoking cessation programs to help students who have become addicted.

Education Commissioner Randy Watson said he will discuss the issue with experts and have recommendations for the board to consider at its next monthly meeting in June.

“This is urgent,” he said, adding that he hoped the board would have policies and recommendations to assist districts before the start of the next school year.

In response to the increase in e-cigarette use, more than a dozen states  have recently passed laws raising the legal smoking age from 18 to 21. In Kansas, the minimum age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, is 18.

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