The U.S. surgeon general reports that smoking remains the leading cause of death and disease in our nation. Every day, nearly 3,200 young people under the age of 18 try smoking for the first time, and an estimated 2,100 young people become daily cigarette smokers—according to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014. Approximately 20 percent of all high school students and 7 percent of all middle level students have reported using some type of tobacco product. While the number of students using regular cigarettes has decreased, the number of overall underage tobacco users has, unfortunately, remained steady. This is due to the growing popularity of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), mainly electronic cigarettes.
In 2016, approximately 11 percent of high school students and 4 percent of all middle level students reported using electronic cigarettes. I have had the opportunity to speak with countless principals from all different regions and demographic makeups, and they all tell me that ENDS in schools are a growing issue—one that isn’t going away anytime soon. Principals have also stressed their inability to curb such a trend. Disciplinary measures go only so far and don’t actually get to the root of the problem. So, how do we help students understand the dangers of ENDS and quit their use of them?
Most educators are already aware that electronic cigarettes pose a dangerous threat to our nation’s youth, as they are much more popular and easily accessible for minors than regular cigarettes. There is additional concern surrounding electronic cigarettes and other ENDS because they are viewed as “healthier alternatives” to regular tobacco products. However, the nicotine in electronic cigarettes still poses substantial risks to children and teenagers, as it can inhibit attention and learning development. Minors are also more susceptible to addiction than adults, and the use of nicotine at an early age could lead to a long-term addiction, according to the surgeon general.
While educators continue to grapple with the best way to address disciplinary measures around the use of ENDS, one constant remains—assistance is necessary in addressing this issue. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized a rule that extended its regulatory authority to all tobacco products, including ENDS. Ultimately, this rule disallows the sale of any ENDS or their components to minors and requires manufacturers to register their products with the FDA in order to sell them legally. Unfortunately, however, this rule didn’t stem the tide as hoped—as many minors have started exploiting loopholes to continue to gain access to these devices.
With the fight for the health of our nation’s youth ongoing, educators and health advocates may have just gained an extremely valuable ally—Congress. A slew of recently introduced bills this year have aimed to curb the use of ENDS in several different ways.
- 1832, the Smoke-Free Schools Act: Introduced by Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Mitt Romney (R-UT), this bill lays out explicit evidence that electronic cigarette use in schools and among young people has reached the level of a public health epidemic. The bill would aim to curb this epidemic by banning electronic cigarette use in educational and child care facilities.
- 655 and H.R. 1498, the SAFE Kids Act: Introduced by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) along with Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), the SAFE Kids Act would ban the use of flavored tobacco unless the seller can prove the flavor of tobacco helps adults quit smoking, it does not increase youth initiation of nicotine or tobacco products, and it doesn’t increase the risk of harm to the person using the flavor. Research has found that, overall, 85 percent of electronic cigarette users from ages 12 to 17 use flavors; passage of this bill would drastically impact the popularity of electronic cigarettes for young individuals.
- 1541, the Tobacco-Free Youth Act: Introduced by Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Tim Kaine (D-VA), this bill would raise the nationwide minimum age to buy all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vaping devices, from 18 to 21. This would close a major loophole being exploited by many minors of having their 18-year-old peers purchase these devices and tobacco for them.
NASSP is proud to see Congress take this growing issue seriously and has been vocal in its support of each of these bills. However, introducing a bill is not enough; we hope that Congress passes these bills and legislators continue educating themselves on this far-reaching issue.
This summer I had the privilege of participating in a roundtable discussion with Sen. Kaine on youth tobacco use. The event brought together educators, students, researchers, and health advocates to better explain the issues we are seeing and offer suggestions and potential solutions to this problem moving forward. More lawmakers should follow Sen. Kaine’s example and step up to learn more about this issue and work in a bipartisan manner for a solution that will help shield young individuals from the dangers of tobacco use and nicotine addiction.
For more information on ENDS, vaping, and electronic cigarette use, as well as recommendations for school leaders, policymakers, and others concerning the topic, read the NASSP Policy & Advocacy Center’s position statement on marketing of tobacco to children and youth—which can be found at www.nassp.org/policy-advocacy-center/nassp-position-statements.