How can schools prevent teens vaping in York County? New law might help

FILE - In this April 23, 2014 file photo, a man smokes an electronic cigarette in Chicago. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he's directing state health officials to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, citing the risk of young people getting addicted to nicotine. The Democrat announced Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, that the state health commissioner would be making a recommendation this week to the state Public Health and Health Planning Council. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

A few weeks ago at a Dover Area school board meeting, Superintendent Tracy Krum pointed to a problem in the district.

Vaping accounts for 85% of the district's total disciplinary actions for student substance abuse, Krum said. 

But she hopes a new state law change coming this summer will drive numbers down.

“If a student vaped on campus, you had to prove it was nicotine — that it was a tobacco product," she said. "The new law changes that. Just vaping on school property can be cited by the police."

House Bill 97 and Senate Bill 473 were signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in November, making it a summary offense for students to use or possess tobacco products — which include e-cigarettes and nicotine products. They also make Pennsylvania the 19th state to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21, effective July 1.

More:Senate GOP leader would raise age for buying tobacco to 21

President Donald Trump approved a federal law that also raised the purchase age in December.

In the American Lung Association's 18th annual State of Tobacco Control report released Wednesday, Jan. 29, there was a reported 135% increase in high school e-cigarette use nationally from 2017 to 2019.

The report said the state received F grades in tobacco taxes and funding for tobacco control — on which it funded about $15.1 million compared to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended $140 million.

Northern York County School District saw an increase in vaping about three or four years ago, said Superintendent Eric Eshbach on Wednesday, Jan. 29, but it has leveled off in the last couple of years, especially at the middle school.

Eshbach said officials are getting better at identifying use and addiction and knowing the warning signs, and even students are reporting more incidents anonymously.

He said he remembers when citations and fines were first issued for smoking on school grounds, and the number of students bringing tobacco to school dropped dramatically.

A summary offense holds a much greater weight than a suspension or expulsion, he said.

He said he doesn't think changing the purchasing age will have a huge effect on the number of students vaping at school, but the summary offense will.

"You have to be 21 to purchase alcohol, too, yet you still have situations where students can get ahold of alcohol," he said.

Nine school districts updated their tobacco use policy No. 222 in 2019 to include vaping. Several of these districts, and some that updated their policies earlier, included references to "juuling" and the district issuing fines for vaping on school grounds even if the state did not.

"Juuling" refers to the Juul Labs brand of e-cigarettes, which are very popular among teens.

Dover had one of earliest policies to include e-cigarettes in 2014, followed by Northern in 2016. Dallastown Area has an extension to its policy putting possession of vape devices at the same degree as tobacco. Northeastern even bans items that display or promote use.

Central York, York Suburban and West York Area are the only districts with no mention of e-cigarettes in their policies. West York's tobacco policy was last updated in 2009.

"As an industry, we are in favor of it," said Mike Curry, owner of several LifeSmoke Vapors, including one in Springettsbury Township, about the increase in the minimum age.

Curry, like many in the vaping industry, supports the move to raise the age to buy the products, but he is skeptical about its effectiveness. He acknowledged that it will hurt the bottom line. 

"I don't think it will have as big of an effect as people are hoping for," Curry said of the 21 law, noting there are already disposable vape devices called "puff bars" popping up in other shops that teens will likely get their hands on.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported vaping became a health risk when hospitalizations and deaths were reported from lung injuries associated with e-cigarettes or vaping, mostly from black market marijuana and vitamin E acetate.

More:OP-ED: His lung collapsed after vaping. Now he wants to help students

In Pennsylvania, there have been 122 cases — 62 confirmed and 60 probable — including one confirmed death, as of Jan. 28, said state Department of Health public information officer Brittany Lauffer in an email.

Lauffer said the department is not reporting cases by county. But the number of new cases across the state has decreased significantly over the last several weeks, she said.

"The best thing to do is to not vape, and particularly to not vape products bought off the street," Lauffer said.

State and federal officials are considering even more regulation of the vaping industry, most notably the ban on flavored vape juice. Proponents say the often fruity or candy flavored vape liquids directly market to teens. 

A government ban of flavored vapes, however, would "shut down the industry," Curry said.