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Cities take issue with unsettling smoke

Cities take issue with unsettling smoke

After decades of declines in underage tobacco use, flavored vape juice is fueling a resurgence in teen smoking; forces cities to consider bans as school districts struggle to deal with vaping epidemic

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

TULARE – When Sara Morton became an educator 20 years ago, underage cigarette use was at an all-time low. Kids who had grown up watching well-funded anti-smoking commercials on television seemed to have gotten the message. During her first few years as assistant principal at Tulare Western High School, Morton said she never heard any talk about tobacco use and rarely caught kids lighting up the old cliché of smoking in the bathroom. 

Three years ago things started to change. During that time, Morton said she has seen a steady increase of underage vaping, although it can’t be proven because tobacco doesn’t smell like sour leaf anymore. Instead, it smells like bubblegum, cotton candy, strawberries and churros. 

“There’s no more yucky smell,” she said. “What can you do when a kid has a strong odor of bubble gum?,” Morton said. 

Despite decades of decline in teen smoking, flavored vaping juices has led to a resurgence of adolescent tobacco use. Cities in Tulare County are now contemplating bans on vaping the same time school districts struggle to deal with a vaping epidemic. Submitted photo.

Even the devices are deceiving. Vape pens get their name from resembling an ink pen. Others look like portable USB drives, phone chargers or lipstick. 

“None of this stuff sets off any red flags, so it’s hard to know if a student is using tobacco,” Morton said. 

Morton says they are rarely able to catch kids in the act on campus, but that other students have come to administrators with concerns about their friends’ vaping habits. Educators know that vaping is not healthy, even though it may be less harmful than cigarettes. 

Vape juice is essentially an oil that is being heated into a steam and there are 60 known chemicals used in the liquid, according to the Truth Initiative, a tobacco prevention program. They also include nicotine, the main addictive substance in cigarettes, although usually at lower levels. 

“It really is scary what kids are doing to themselves,” Morton said. “They have no clue what’s in that bottle and who knows where they are buying them from.” 

Morton said she isn’t sure what the right answer to the problem is, but she does know the right question to ask: If flavored vaping juice isn’t targeting children, then why is it so popular with underage users? 

“I never imagined someone would reinvent cigarettes and make them more appealing to a young person,” Morton said. “I really thought teen smoking was, for the most part, a thing of the past.”

SWATTING SMOKE SHOPS

In order to clear the air on teen vaping, the Tulare City Council is considering a ban on all flavored vaping products. Following two joint meetings with school district officials this month and last, the council discussed the ban at its Oct. 1 meeting. 

The item was introduced to the council by Mayor Jose Sigala and the consensus was to move forward with an ordinance, but not before a few councilmembers had reservations. Vice Mayor Dennis A. Mederos asked how a ban would stop people from ordering it online. Sigala countered that online purchases require a credit card and that parents can control those types of purchases. 

Councilmember Carlton Jones said he understood that vaping is bad, but that it isn’t any more dangerous, and probably less so, than teenage drinking of alcohol. He said he would also like to get rid of drinks like Four Lokos, an alcoholic beverage made to look like an energy drink, but both alcohol and tobacco need to be regulated at a higher level for any locals laws to make a difference. 

“The problem is that there is a lack of regulation to the product. So many try to make CBD and THC with marijuana with pesticides in it,” Jones said.

Councilmember Greg Nunley disagreed with the alcohol analogy. “Anyone drinking alcohol is not being put in a coma. Just smoking this is putting people in a coma.”

Councilmember Terry Sayer said it wasn’t a good idea to wait around for state or federal legislation when children were being hurt now. She said cracking down on places that sell flavored tobacco to youth could at least stem the epidemic. 

“There are places in Tulare where they are selling to youth,” Sayer said. “We can make it uncomfortable for them to sell it to youth. Let’s do something about those places.”

Councilmember Jones was also concerned the ban may create a black market for homemade versions of vape juice that are extremely dangerous. 

“The production in people’s houses, that’s where people are getting sick,” Jones said. “Anytime you say no flavored vaping, people are going to make it.”

Police Chief Wes Hensley said when it comes to flavored vape juice, you aren’t just talking about tobacco, but also about cannabis. In August, Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) issued a public health warning that vaping cannabis could increase your risk of a severe pulmonary condition, which produces flu-like symptoms and can rapidly escalate. At least three people in Tulare County have been hospitalized due to vaping unregulated cannabis or CBD oils.

Hensley said the recent rise in vaping was similar to the spike in Spice use several years ago. The synthetic marijuana is a mix of herbs (shredded plant material) and man-made chemicals mixed to mimic the effects of marijuana but is frequently much stronger and more dangerous than its more natural, legal counterpart. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens, many of the chemicals used in spice have been banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2017, the mixture of chemicals resulted in overdose deaths in emergency rooms across the country. 

“Did we eliminate, No. But we significantly reduced the number of places and it is not as prevalent as it was before,” Chief Hensley said.

Hensley said his department could run operations similar to using underage decoys to attempt to purchase alcohol from liquor stores. He said it would take a lot of resources to crack down on the stores selling to minors but that it was doable. 

“There is some enforcement if they yank the license,” Sigala said. “I do think our police department has an important role in doing what chief is saying. We do have a role in terms of undercover and shoulder tap [operations] that help ABC determine whether someone should be shut down.”

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to have a citywide ban on flavored tobacco products brought back as an emergency ordinance. The ban will be presented at the council’s Nov. 5 meeting. If approved by council, the emergency ordinance would take effect immediately and would not require a 30 day period for a second reading. 

Calls to Tulare area vape shops were not returned as of press time.

The City of San Francisco banned the sale of all e-cigarettes in June despite being home to the product’s number one manufacturer Juul Labs. In July, the City Council in Livermore, Calif., a city of about 89,000 people located on the eastern edge of the Bay Area, voted to ban all flavored tobacco but a group of citizens challenged the ordinance. After gathering enough signatures, the City of Livermore decided to put the ban up for a vote on the March 3, 2020 ballot. Los Angeles is discussing a ban on flavored tobacco and experts expect Governor Gavin Newsom to push for a law banning all sales of flavored tobacco early next year.

LIGHTING A FIRE

Visalia may be the next city to ban flavored tobacco products. Three Mt. Whitney High School seniors spoke at the Oct. 7 Visalia City Council meeting asking the city to ban flavored tobacco products within the city limits. The students are part of the C.A.L.I. (Collaborate. Advocate. Lead. Inspire.) youth coalition working to reduce youth tobacco use and youth vaping under the umbrella of the California Health Collaborative. 

Kevin Linares said the group’s goal tonight is to raise awareness around e-cigarette use and flavored tobacco products among youth and to increase the public’s knowledge about what’s been happening to our peers. “We want to encourage local leadership to take action where improvement is needed,” Linares said.

Jocelyn Resendiz told the council that 86.4% of youth tobacco users in California reported using flavored tobacco products. She said the tobacco industry directly targets youth with their packaging and use of flavors. According to C.A.L.I., there are over 15,000 different flavors of e-juice, many of which appeal to Latino and Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations such as horchata, churros, sriracha, and boba. 

“At school, students openly talk about trading Juul pods with each other and multiple students have been caught trading,” she said. “Students also have been caught using these devices in class. They will often hide it in their sleeve or their backpack.”

Alexandra Acevedo said 38% of 11th graders in Visalia Unified School District reported using electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices, according to the most recent California Health Kids Survey for 2015/2016. He also pointed out that Tulare County had its first vaping related death just last month and that there have been 33 confirmed deaths nationwide as of Oct. 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). On Sept. 16, a Tulare County resident became the first vaping associated death in the Central Valley. On Oct. 8, the Kings County Department of Public Health announced a local woman was the second vaping related death in the Valley. Both cases are part of a recent spike in Kings, Fresno, and Tulare counties of individuals being admitted to hospitals with VAPI. Many of the cases seem to be connected to vaping cannabis or CBD oils and are being investigated by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) in Kings County where health officials have reported nine cases since June. CDPH has identified 65 potential cases across the state among people with a recent history of vaping, some of whom vaped unlicensed or unregulated cannabis products, beginning in late June.

“With all these cases and deaths occurring, we want to inform you on some possible solutions which include restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products near schools, parks and youth centers,” Acevedo said. “We would like to elaborate more in a future city council meeting as a presentation.”

Councilmember Greg Collins asked for the ban of flavored tobacco products to put on a future agenda. The item will be placed on the consent calendar where the council can vote to add it as an official item to a future meeting or deny the request with a vote.

RAISING QUESTIONS

Just last week, the CDC issued a statement that it, as well as the FDA, state and local health departments are investigating a multistate outbreak of lung injury associated with vaping, now being referred to as vape associated pulmonary injury (VAPI). As of Oct. 15, 2019, there have been 1,479 lung injury cases associated with the use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products have been reported to CDC from 49 states (all except Alaska), the District of Columbia, and 1 U.S. territory. The CDC is recommending that people refrain from any type of e-cigarette, particularly those containing THC, don’t buy vaping products from street or pop-up vendors, and reminding everyone that there is no safe tobacco product and that they are especially harmful to youth. 

“Since the specific cause or causes of lung injury are not yet known, the only way to assure that people are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from use of all e-cigarette and vaping products,” the CDC said in a released statement. “There is no safe tobacco product. All tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, carry a risk.”

The CDC statement prompted the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) to schedule a community forum about vape use among teenagers. The presentation, followed by questions and answers, will be held at the El Diamante High School Theater from 6:30 to 8 p.m. tomorrow, on Thursday, Oct. 24.

“The industry is constantly creating new ways to hide evidence of the dangers of vaping, and as a nation we are seeing tragic loss of life due to vaping,” noted Frank Escobar, director of student services for Visalia Unified School District. “It’s critically important that parents become more aware, know what to look for, and be prepared to address it with their child.”

According to a study commissioned by Congress, teens and young adults are much more likely to become addicted to the nicotine from vaping and vaping devices release toxic substances. Vape devices can look like cigarettes, cigars, pipes, USB sticks or small cell phones.

“We have now seen kids vaping through the drawstrings of their hoodies,” he added. “The industry is very creative but the harmful impacts on our kids are very real.”

For more information regarding the presentation, contact Frank Escobar, 559-730-7570 or email fescobar@vusd.org.

SMOKE DETECTORS

Smaller school districts are getting involved as well. At the beginning of this month, Exeter Unified School District and, indirectly, Farmersville Unified School District, both received more than a quarter of a million dollars to prevent the illegal sale of tobacco products to minors. 

Exeter Unified School District was awarded $279,934 and the Tulare County Office of Education was awarded $364,113 in state funding to tackle the illegal sale of cigarettes, tobacco and vaping products to minors as part of the California Department of Justice’s Tobacco Grant Program. Grants totaling $30.5 million were awarded to 76 local entities throughout the state to support the enforcement of state and local laws related to the illegal sales and marketing of tobacco products to minors.

TCOE will use its funding to collaborate with the Farmersville Police Department to hire an officer to do tobacco-related enforcement and outreach. The officer will work with local merchants to support laws related to the sales and marketing of tobacco products to minors. Law enforcement officers and Choices staff will assess businesses and their placement of tobacco and vaping products and advertisements.

At Farmersville Junior High, Choices prevention educators will present curriculum over the course of the school year on the dangers of tobacco and alcohol. Utilizing the Botvin LifeSkills curriculum, students will learn the short- and long-term effects of tobacco and alcohol use and how advertising companies target youth to buy and use their products. The curriculum also helps students develop the communication, assertiveness and conflict resolution skills to say “no” in high pressure situations.

EUSD will use at least some of the funding to hire a school resource officer through the Exeter Police Department and to provide education for students and their families regarding the harmful effects of tobacco and vaping. The officer will primarily work at Wilson Middle School and Exeter Union High School campuses. Superintendent George Eddy said he isn’t sure exactly how the district will use all of the money because it originally applied for a much larger grant to cover a broader list of anti-tobacco initiatives. 

“We have not received word on the final notice form the Attorney General’s Office but are expecting to know by mid-November,” Eddy said. “We have to report on outcomes from the grant so we need to know what the money is approved for. We also do not know if the grant is for three, four or five years.”

Other activities listed in EUSD’s grant application included tobacco and drug prevention counselors as well as smart sensors to detect e-cigarette vapor in bathrooms. Eddy said the district was looking at the Halo Smart Sensor which detects spikes in sound, changes in air quality and humidity and certain chemicals associated with vaping.

“This is a new technology that uses several different sensors to detect vaping,” Eddy said. “But it can also alert us to fighting and other issues.”

The Department of Justice’s Tobacco Grant Program is funded by Proposition 56 (Prop. 56), the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Tax Act of 2016. Beginning in April 2017, Prop. 56 raised the cigarette tax by $2 per pack, with an equivalent increase on all other tobacco products. Prop. 56 also allocates millions of dollars annually to the California Department of Justice for distribution to local law enforcement agencies for the support and hiring of peace officers for various activities. These activities include investigations and compliance checks to reduce the illegal sale of tobacco products to minors.

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