Local school officials support governor’s vaping ban

Local school officials support governor’s vaping ban

Following Gov. Gina Raimondo’s ban last week on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in the state, school officials in northern Rhode Island have expressed their support, with many saying that vaping has been an issue among older students.

The vaping ban came after a nationwide increase in vaping-related illnesses and deaths and a day after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker instituted a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products in Massachusetts.

As of Sept. 27, there have been 805 lung injury cases reported from 46 states and one U.S. territory, as well as 12 deaths confirmed in 10 states, according to information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A specific cause is still undetermined, the CDC said last Friday.

“The recent tragedies we have seen across the country have only exacerbated the awareness, which is good, but we all need to be talking more about prevention as well as education on the risks of vaping,” Lincoln Supt. Larry Filippelli told The Breeze.

Both Filippelli and Cumberland Supt. Bob Mitchell said they don’t think there’s a high school in the U.S. that isn’t dealing with students vaping. According to new preliminary data from the National Tobacco Youth Survey, e-cigarette use has increased among high school students, showing that now 27.5 percent of high school users have used e-cigarettes in the past month.

“Obviously this is a huge issue across the board, not just in Lincoln, not just in Rhode Island either, but we still believe that the majority of kids are not vaping,” Pam Shayer, the Lincoln coordinator for the Blackstone Valley Prevention Coalition, told The Breeze. When kids first started vaping, there wasn’t enough data to prove the negative consequences like there is with tobacco, but this summer, Shayer said, “we’re starting to see exactly the dangers that are arising because of this use.” More data is needed, she said, to see what age groups and target populations are vaping and what they can do to educate them about the risks.

Dan Kelley, principal at Smithfield High School, said that vaping continues to be one of the top issues in regard to student discipline. Last year, there were 14 documented incidents of vaping during school hours, he said.

Officials are looking into sensors that detect vape use, he said, but they are expensive. According to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the R.I. Department of Health, 12.9 percent of 9th-graders and 10th-graders reported use within the past 30 days, Kelley said.

At SHS, officials have placed informational articles outside of bathrooms and work to educate students through curriculum work and face-to-face meetings, he said.

In a press release applauding Raimondo’s ban, the American Lung Association called the youth e-cigarette epidemic “nothing short of a public health emergency that must be urgently confronted.”

“The need for such action is even more urgent in light of continuing reports of severe lung illnesses and deaths linked to vaping, as the developing lungs of youth might be at greater risk,” the release stated.

The liquid can contain nicotine, THC and CBD oils, and other substances and additives, according to the CDC.

Jonathan Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, said in a statement that the association understands the governor’s ban to “address the fact that Rhode Island youth are using flavored vaping products intended for adults only … We hope the governor’s regulations decisively close off the online marketplace and that she considers more dedicated enforcement action around youth ‘use’ in addition to a sales ban on flavors.”

Erika McCormick, chairwoman of the Scituate School Committee and former director of Scituate Students Against Destructive Decisions, said that the ban is an important step in the right direction but she is concerned that students may now have nicotine addictions from vaping.

Many may not have been aware that vapes even included nicotine, she said, adding that schools will need to focus on resources to help students quit the addiction.

North Smithfield High School Principal Tim McGee, who said teen vaping is one of the biggest issues administrators deal with at the high school, also expressed concern about students becoming addicted.

“We’re trying to deal with the root of the problem, it’s not just a punitive thing,” he explained. “They develop an addiction, and now it’s a problem.”

Many of the schools have smoking policies that now also include the same consequences for students caught vaping. However, policies may be difficult to enforce, McCormick said. “It’s odorless, smokeless, and the devices are easily hidden,” she said. “How can one really, truly enforce this?”

Mitchell said that some Cumberland students are clever at hiding vape products, some of which can look like disk drives. One vape product available to purchase is a hooded sweatshirt, with the vape being in the drawstring. “They’re creative,” he said. “Unless parents know what to look for, their children could be doing it without their knowledge.”

The Blackstone Valley Prevention Coalition hosts presentations about vaping for parents and faculty called Hidden in Plain Sight where they show parents and educators what drug objects to look for. The flavors and accessories, like vaping sweatshirts, are clearly marketed toward adolescents, Shayer said.

Woonsocket Supt. Patrick McGee said the devices are easier to hide and leave less of an odor than the cigarettes of previous generations, making them a continued problem at Woonsocket High School.

“I don’t know that they’re dealing with it on a daily basis, but they’re dealing with it. It is an issue,” he said. “There are kids that try to vape in places where they think they’re not going to get caught like the bathrooms and even sometimes in the halls.”

Districts are starting to include education about the risks associated with vaping in their health curriculum and have invited speakers to address the topic with middle and high school students. Woonsocket has hosted speakers from the University of Rhode Island pharmacy program and Blackstone Valley Prevention Coalition, while North Providence hosted David Neil from the U.S. Attorney’s Office who will return to the high school on Oct. 7 for a follow-up presentation.

“We are trying to be very proactive with a combination of awareness, prevention education, and consequences, said North Providence Supt. Joseph Goho.

Not all schools, however, are seeing a huge uptick in students who vape.

Robert Mezzanotte, principal at Lincoln High School, said it’s clear that vaping companies have intentionally marketed the now-banned flavored vape products to young people but believes that many students are making the right choice and not using “these harmful products.”

“The reality is that most students choose not to vape,” he said.

In Pawtucket, secondary school principals have reported that vaping isn’t a huge issue and incidents have been very sporadic, Cheryl McWilliams, Pawtucket’s interim superintendent, told The Breeze.

“It’s not an epidemic (in Pawtucket),” she said. “I hope it stays that way.”

McWilliams said she isn’t sure what to attribute that to, wondering if it’s related to affordability, but adding that she hopes “it’s because we’re sending a message to our students to stay fit and healthy.”