A community health crisis is emerging across the country as vape and e-cigarette usage increases. As of Tuesday, at least 15 U.S. citizens had died from severe lung illness linked to vaping.
“I agree with our young folks that vaping is an epidemic,” Lake County High School Assistant Principal Erin Dillon said at a public meeting on vape use in Lake County last week.
Originally thought of as a way for smokers to quit traditional cigarettes, vapes are now known for hooking both nicotine-addicted adults and young people who get addicted to sweet flavors like “bubble gum” and “fruit loops.”
In 2017, about 25 percent of Lake County High School students had smoked cigarettes or used e-vapor products in the 30 days before taking the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. Thirty-five percent said they would use an electronic vape product if one of their best friends offered it.
“It’s the new cool thing students do to fit in,” LCHS student Monica Euceda said.
In the 2018-2019 school year, LCHS had nine vape-related suspensions. This year, the high-school administration has already suspended three students for the same reason.
Vaping’s popularity has led LCHS to rework its reporting and prevention policies surrounding nicotine use at school in an era where traditional cigarettes aren’t much of a problem.
The high-school administration now calls the Leadville Police Department to check confiscated vapes for illegal substances, an increasingly common occurrence in schools in surrounding communities. To date, no drugs have been found in vapes of LCHS students beyond tobacco. LCHS will also install vape detectors around the building next week.
The high school requires students who are caught vaping to participate in “Second Chance,” a web-based tobacco education program for middle- and high-school youth. Some students who show signs of addiction are referred to a licensed addiction counselor and the school nurse.
“We believe we are now seeing vaping move from a trend to some students actually developing nicotene addictions where they “need” to vape,” LCHS Principal Ben Cairns told the Herald. “It seems clear that never starting is the best option.”
Last spring, a group of Lake County Build a Generation (LCBAG) interns created an awareness program on vaping for teachers at LCHS and Lake County Intermediate School and an educational video for community members.
This fall, LCBAG will convene a youth coalition to work on issues surrounding youth substance use. The coalition will meet monthly to develop public awareness and discuss policy changes regarding vaping.
“Our interns and community members got us to where we are now,” LCBAG Youth Master Plan Coordinator Kevin Pokorny said of the prevention work already happening in Lake County.
On Monday, a group of LCHS students and community members met with the Board of County Commissioners to discuss potential policy measures to fight vape use in Lake County.
“As adults, it’s our job to protect our kids,” Lisa Zwerdlinger, of Rocky Mountain Family Practice, told the commissioners.
The Colorado Legislature recently passed a bill allowing local governments to regulate nicotine products in their jurisdictions without penalty from the state. Ever since, counties and cities across Colorado have moved to tighten restrictions around the sale of nicotine products.
In June, the Aspen City Council voted to ban all flavored nicotine products. In September, Silverthorne and Frisco joined Dillon and Breckenridge in implementing licensing for nicotine retailers. The towns also raised the minimum-age requirement from 18 to 21.
Colorado is one of just 12 states that does not require licensing to sell nicotine products, a policy many view as an essential building block in the effort to narrow youth access to vape products.
A licensing program would require local nicotine retailers to follow control laws like checking IDs for minimum age. Failure to comply could lead to fines or a lost license. Many municipalities with licensing programs use license fees to fund compliance checks.
“Licensing is really about accountability,” Pokorny said. “It levels the playing field for businesses that are already complying with the law.”
Another policy option is to raise the minimum age to buy nicotine from 18 to 21, a strategy some governments have used to minimize underage access to vape products through social networks. According to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 53% of LCHS students thought it would be easy to get vape products if they wanted them.
Flavor bans, like those found in Aspen, Carbondale and Boulder, are also gaining traction. “Two-thirds of users report using vapes because they come in flavors,” Pokorny told the Herald. “Most say they would stop using vapes if the flavors were taken away.”
Another policy strategy is to raise the price of vapes and e-cigarettes by implementing a local tax on nicotine. Vape products are not currently subject to state or federal tobacco taxes.
In November, Summit County will vote on whether to place a 40% tax on all nicotine products over the span of four years. If the Lake County BOCC decides to pursue such a measure, it would have to go to the voters for approval.
The BOCC asked the organizers present at Monday’s meeting to come back to the courthouse in October with more details on the vape-related ordinances approved by surrounding communities.
“We think a lot fewer kids are playing around with vaping now that there is so much more news coming out about the danger,” Cairns said. “But the kids who are still engaging are developing dangerous lifelong habits that will have serious health impacts.”