Last week, County School Superintendent Dustin Williams announced an initiative to combat vaping among Southern Arizona teens. The campaign, called Real Deal on Vaping, will use social media to help combat peer pressure. A recent survey said that 47% of area teens have tried vaping.
The initiative was announced at a press conference with Williams and Sheriff’s Department personnel, but the real stars of the press conference were students Ariana Noriega of Cholla High School and Madeline Zheng of University High School, who gave personal stories about how vaping in high school has affected them and their friends. Much of this movement to get vaping out of our high schools has been driven by students.
Vapes present a different set of challenges than cigarettes. You can take a puff or two from a vaping device and put it away for later, which is not something that you can do with a cigarette very easily. Many also do not look, at least at first glance, like something delivering tobacco products. Some look like pens; some look like flash drives.
What isn’t helping matters is that, despite the companies saying they don’t want to market to teens, there is a lot about these products that seems designed to appeal to teens. I can’t imagine there are a lot of people in their mid-twenties who are looking for cotton candy or crème brule flavored smoke.
My colleagues and I studied raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products, not just vapes, in the City of Tucson to 21. What they have found in many communities is that 18 year olds will buy these products and distribute them to other students. Without high school students to buy tobacco products, there would be far less availability.
One of the things we realized in that discussion was that the city did not have a mechanism for enforcing such a rule, but the county does. We have been talking to them about both the city and the county passing a law, that then the county can enforce. Although it’s been found in the past that bans in relatively small communities can be effective (Needham, Massachusetts saw tobacco use among teems cut in half after raising the age to 21 in 2005 even though they were surrounded by towns that hadn’t), a county wide ban would be desirable.
The state legislature, as usual, has thrown a bit of a monkey wrench in this. There is a move up at the capitol for a statewide ban on tobacco sales to people under 21. That sounds good on the surface, but the worry I am hearing is that the ban might be toothless and include language that would prevent cities and towns from having their own, stronger bans. In particular, I worry because the lobbyists for many of the companies selling these products are backing the proposal in the legislature.
As someone who works as a classroom teacher and has been involved with youth issues my entire career, I am watching this very carefully.