The Kansas State Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to launch an anti-vaping campaign through the public schools in response to a level of electric-cigarette usage among minors that appears to have reached epidemic proportions.
The effort to systematically curtail student interest in e-cigarettes beginning with the 2019-2020 school year ought to be broad enough to feature outreach to school staff, parents and the general public. Local school boards need to amend student codes of conduct and district disciplinary policy to outline sanctions for those caught vaping. The state board agreed to formalize and expand an ad-hoc task force that recommended swift action to dampen demand by youth in the sweet-flavored alternative to smoking.
The state board also endorsed inclusion of information on dangers of vaping in model health education curriculum standards and agreed to the need for development of a web-based information hub on e-cigarettes.
Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education, said estimates that half of students in Kansas high school were involved in vaping justified an aggressive statewide response. It amounts to a public health epidemic, he said.
"That is absolutely what we're seeing," he said. "This takes a different response."
Addison Schlatter, a junior at the University of Kansas and a member of the state education board's working group on vaping, said about 50 percent of students at her high school engaged in vaping. She said it was common for college students to make use of the devices capable of generating a nicotine hit exceeding that of a typical cigarette.
"I think students know more than the rest of us," said state board member Jim Porter, who suggested many adults wouldn't know what to do with a vape pen.
The state board ought to be a partner with the attorney general's office and other organizations in development of legislation capable of fighting the vaping menace, Porter said.
It's against Kansas law for people under 18 to purchase or possess cigarettes, and state statute defines e-cigarettes as a tobacco product. Some municipal jurisdictions in Kansas have chosen to adopt a minimum age of 21 for those purchases.
State school board member Michelle Dombrosky said the public school bus system had become a rolling training ground for vaping because older and younger students mixed in an environment in which usage of e-cigarettes could occur without easy detection.
The state board's information campaign would draw upon information about usage rates generated from a pair of existing surveys that shed light on the student condition. In addition, the board expressed interest in having anti-smoking signs on school property amended to proclaim the space vape-free.
Mark Thompson, a health and physical education program consultant with the state department, said some public school districts handled discipline for vaping offenders in a manner identical to those caught with illegal use of alcohol and drugs. However, he said, consideration ought to be given by the permanent task force to dealing with vaping as an addiction requiring treatment rather than suspension of students from classes or exta-curricular activities.
The ongoing public-private task force on vaping ought to include parents and college students, said Janet Waugh, a state school board member.
"I am extremely concerned," she said. "There's a lot of community members who have no clue this is going on."