One in four high school students, and one in seven middle school students, now uses some kind of tobacco product, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this month. These numbers represent a dramatic increase over just the last year, an increase driven almost entirely by a nationwide surge in youth vaping or, as many of them call it, “juuling.”
If we do not stem this burgeoning tide, we will be dealing with the health and economic consequences of an entirely new generation of Kentuckians who are addicted to nicotine.
The Kentucky legislature is currently considering legislation that is a crucial step in reducing adolescent and teen tobacco use, as well as their exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke and e-cigarette aerosol.
House Bill 11 and Senate Bill 27 would make tobacco-free schools a statewide law. The bills would prohibit at all times the use of all tobacco products on, and in, property owned or operated by a school district. The law would go into effect on July 1, 2020.
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No serious person questions whether tobacco use or exposure to secondhand smoke and aerosol are unsafe for our children. We know that tobacco smoke and aerosol both contain nicotine, which is very dangerous to developing brains. In fact, nicotine actually halts brain development; it also reduces our kids’ impulse control, impairs their learning ability and impacts their moods. These impacts are both immediate and can be long-term. Smoke and aerosol emitted from tobacco products also contain cancer-causing chemicals, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds that both users and bystanders can inhale deep into their lungs. The bloodstream then quickly transports these toxins throughout the body and to the brain.
In addition, nicotine is highly addictive, especially for kids and young adults. Using tobacco products when you’re under age 25 greatly increases the chances you’ll still be using them later on. The Food and Drug Administration has found that 90 percent of adult smokers started using tobacco before age 18. The recent surge in youth juuling, vaping and e-cigarette smoking has already erased more than a decade of health progress for our youth nationwide.
In Kentucky, we started 2018 with a youth tobacco-use rate of one in four kids, compared to a national rate of one in five. If Kentucky kids’ use is increasing at the national rate, we’re now looking at one in three Kentucky youth using tobacco. High school student focus groups that were conducted at the end of 2018 by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Kentucky Youth Advocates indicated that, indeed, Kentucky teens are mirroring this frightening national trend.
HB 11 and SB 27 represent a reasonable and workable first step to halt this trend in its tracks. The bills would require schools to post signage announcing the policy, but would allow the local districts to determine the penalties for violations that work best in their communities. Thus, there is a measure of local control while achieving the protection our youth need from tobacco products and messaging during school.
Tobacco-free schools laws protect students from breathing in secondhand smoke and aerosol. They set a healthy example for students by de-normalizing tobacco use at school, where youth spend a third of their waking hours. And, research shows, they reduce teen tobacco use.
Right now, 42 percent of Kentucky school districts have adopted tobacco-free school policies. Given these districts’ experience and how well the policies are working, it’s time to extend the protections to all students across the state. The bills are being considered in the legislature right now. Please contact your legislator today and urge them to support tobacco-free schools in Kentucky. Tell them tobacco has no place in our schools.
Ben Chandler is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation that supports policies to improve the health of Kentuckians.