By Kristin Fox
Throughout our nation, across our state and local community, our youth are facing a serious epidemic – vaping.
Federal data from the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) released by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that more than 2.5 million high and middle school students currently use e-cigarettes.
The Jackson County Student Health Advisory Council (SHAC) has made it a priority to fight this epidemic facing Jackson County students. At the last meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education, School Nutrition Director Laura Cabe spoke to school officials about the epidemic and requested their support in the fight, specifically with the adoption of the T21 Resolution. Knowing firsthand the seriousness of the epidemic facing Jackson County youth, the board of education unanimously voted to approve the resolution.
In 2019, Tobacco 21 or T21 was adopted by Congress raising the federal minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old. The legislation made it illegal for any retailer in all states, D.C., U.S. territories and on tribal lands to sell any tobacco product, including cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes, to anyone younger than 21.
As of September 2022, 41 states followed suit and increased their minimum tobacco sales age to 21 to be in line with the federal law. However, North Carolina, known as the tobacco state, was not one of these states.
The T21 Resolution calls for North Carolina to follow the other states around the nation and raise the purchase age to 21. In the neighboring county, the Macon County School System has passed a T21 Resolution.
As it stated in the resolution: “The members of the Jackson County Public Schools Board of Education strongly support that North Carolina must protect our kids from vaping and nicotine addiction by establishing a tobacco retailer permitting system, raising the minimum age of sales from 18 to 21, restoring local authority, and adopting other needed provisions of legal sales of tobacco products to match federal law.”
While the N.C. Department of Public Safety acknowledges that the federal law prohibits retailers from selling tobacco products and vape products to people under 21 years old, it continues to allow the Law Enforcement division to enforce North Carolina law, which prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 18 years old.
ALE is the lead enforcement agency for the state’s alcoholic beverage control, lottery and tobacco laws. DPS does state that any sale of tobacco products to someone under 21 may be subject to enforcement by the federal authorities.
“From 2001 to 2019, North Carolina has seen a more than fivefold increase in e-cigarette use among middle schoolers and a more than tenfold increase among high school students,” Cabe told the board. “Because of these trends and seeing this firsthand in our own schools and community, the health advisory council has decided to take a three prong approach to fight the epidemic.”
First, the group wants to review the current curriculum that is taught in the schools as well as research other evidence-based curriculum and then make a recommendation to the school system’s curriculum department. Next, SHAC wants to educate parents of the dangers of vaping by creating a media campaign which will include social media videos handouts, educational events and more as they continue to plan.
The third step is to change the laws to make it harder for underage children to access these products, henceforth the reason for the adoption of the T21 Resolution. Most students who use e-cigarettes get them from retail locations such as convenience stores, grocery stores, and of course the local vape shops.
“I want to encourage my fellow board members to pass this resolution because if you can’t see them as predators then why are so many popping up right beside our high school,” said school board member Kim Moore. “They are moving closer to the kids, and I look at it as like preying on our kids. I feel like we are the last line of defense.”
“I think we have five vape shops within walking distance of Smoky Mountain High School now,” said Cabe. “That is very concerning.”
In October 2022, findings from the NYTS which shows that more than 1 in 10 high and middle school students (3.08 million) had used a tobacco product during the past 30 days, including 16.5% of high school and 4.5% of middle school students.
Data about current e-cigarette usage show that 14.1 million of high school students and 3.3 of middle school students reported current e-cigarette use. More alarming data indicates that among current youth e-cigarette users, more than one in four use e-cigarettes daily.
State data indicates the same pattern among students. The North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey (NC YTS) is a public school survey of students in grades 6-12 that measures youth tobacco use behaviors every two years since 1999. According to the NC YTS, from 2011-2019, current e-cigarette use has increased 1129% among high school and 510% among middle school students.
“Vaping use for our kids is extremely dangerous,” said Deputy Superintendent Jake Buchanan. “One of the things that is very important for us is to spread the word to parents that vapes are not safer than smoking cigarettes. In fact, they are far more dangerous to the point where if we had a kid that had to make the choice we would say take a pack of cigarettes rather than vape, because the things that are in vapes have landed our kids in the emergency room in serious conditions.”
“In North Carolina, it is easier in to get a license to sell vapes than it is to get a fishing license,” he added.
In addition to raising the age to purchase tobacco products, the resolution calls for establishing a tobacco retailer permitting system. North Carolina is one of only 10 states in the country that do not require tobacco retailers to obtain a license or permit.
“We plan to go to the board of health and county commissioners as well as meet with individuals in our community to show that we want to get some push and support to increase the age to 21, which is what this resolution is about,” said Cabe. “We want to get support from our community and then that way we can also present this to our state legislators to show how strong and passionate we are about this and really start to work on the laws and rezoning.”
SHAC is an action team through Jackson County Public Schools, made up of school board members, faculty, staff, parents, and students, as well as professionals and individuals in the community. SHAC’s mission is to support an overall safe and healthy community by providing information and education to children, families, and the community towards the prevention of substance abuse and the promotion of safe and healthy choices.
SHAC will continue to meet monthly, moving forward to work with the school board, local government, health board and community to fight the vaping epidemic.