Wake students modernize the school district’s tobacco policy

June 2018

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By Iman Dancy, Jacob Turner, Kavya Kumar and Maya Nair

NC Child Youth Advocacy Council

This blog was cross-posted to Youth Empowered Solutions blog

The world of tobacco is evolving quickly. As the use of cigarettes declines among teens, students are instead turning to Juuls (a common e-cigarette brand), vapes, and similar nicotine products. However, the adults charged with overseeing students — such as teachers and administrators— are often unfamiliar with such products. These sleek devices are being snuck out of class into bathrooms, and being openly used in parking lots and cars after school. Aside from the cancer-causing chemicals in such products, teenagers who use vapes are seven times more likely to begin smoking cigarettes than average. Vaping among students can lead to negative health outcomes, and youth vaping is particularly tied to poor oral health outcomes. YAC

After observing the growing popularity of electronic smoking devices, the NC Child Youth Advocacy Council sought to learn more. We spent the last year gathering information about the the prevalence, attitudes, and adult understanding of the growing problem of nicotine addiction among youth. We conducted a survey of 200 students, and interviewed school officials. Our findings included:

  • Over one quarter of Wake County students surveyed admitted to using tobacco products.
  • Nearly half of those who admitted smoking have used tobacco products on the school campus.
  • One in five students were not aware of their school’s tobacco policy.
  • The school officials we interviewed did not know what a Juul was. Juuls are very discreet; they look very similar to flash drives and can charge through a laptop.
  • Officials said they did not find a need to address the prevalence of Juuls because there is a larger focus on possession of marijuana, alcohol, and other illegal substances. For this reason, there is no attention on clear enforcement for all tobacco products.
  • A couple weeks later, one of the school officials we talked to shared that once he was informed what a Juul looked like, the school had been catching vape products frequently.

On May 1st, 2018 we presented our findings to the Wake County School Board, and proposed two policy changes. The first was an update in the WCPSS policy, and signage on campus, to explicitly include some of the nicotine products (Juuls, vapes, e-cigarettes, etc.) that are increasing in popularity among Wake County students. Direct usage of these terms erases the gray area that currently exists regarding electronic smoking devices. We’re pleased to report that on June 19th the  Wake County School Board voted unanimously to make this change.

Second, we asked that the school board bring information about these new nicotine products into the health class curriculum for high school-aged students. The current curriculum briefly addresses nicotine addiction and its effects, solely mentioning traditional cigarettes. In addition, we recommended that Wake County turn to some of the successful tobacco cessation programs being used in school systems around the nation. These programs inform students about short- and long-term health risks, and help develop refusal skills, rather than strictly emphasizing punishment. Focusing on the root causes of the behavior, rather than reprimanding students in inconsistent ways, will truly reduce the prevalence of youth nicotine use.

We hope that as new policies are implemented, a focus will be placed on education rather than discipline. We do not believe that punishing those who don’t always understand the risks of their actions will solve the problem. Evidence-based interventions, and smoking cessation programs, should be used instead.

Iman Dancy, Kavya Kumar, Maya Nair and Jacob Turner, along with Layla Ejlali (not pictured), are Wake county high school students and members of NC Child’s Youth Advocacy Council. The team has been working together on this project since August 2017.

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