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Kansas Hopes Lessons Learned Fighting Smoking Will Stop Kids From Vaping

National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health
Like prior anti-smoking campaigns in schools, anti-vaping campaigns will try to make electronic cigarettes uncool.

Vaping at Kansas schools is reaching epidemic proportions, prompting the Kansas State Board of Education to launch a concerted campaign against it.

“This thing hit us like a tsunami,” said Jeff Hersh, assistant superintendent at Goddard Public Schools. “Quite honestly it’s very alarming.”

In the most recent health risk survey of Kansas students, conducted in 2017, a third said they had tried electronic cigarettes. Nationally, vaping among high school seniors nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018, from 11% to over 21% according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The state board voted earlier this week to require schools to warn students of the dangers of the smoking alternative starting next year. The Kansas education department will be updating health class standards, which already include lessons to discourage conventional smoking, to address vaping  and will create an online hub with information and resources for communities and schools.

The board’s ad hoc anti-vaping committee is becoming a permanent task force to work toward what health advocates have pointed to as the gold standard for reducing smoking: policy change. The task force could recommend updates to current state and local limits on smoking around schools to explicitly extend to vaping. Some advocates also want to see stronger enforcement of anti-smoking zones. 

While educators were caught-off guard by the sudden rise in vaping, they have a proven playbook to reference in addressing it — decades of anti-smoking campaigns.

Aggressive national anti-smoking campaigns, particularly those started with tobacco industry settlement funds in the '90s, greatly reduced conventional cigarette use among middle and high school students, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Some Kansas school districts, including Blue Valley and Andover, and the Kansas health department’s Resist Tobaccoprogram are already applying some of those proven strategies to dissuade students from vaping.

But don’t expect health teachers to show students the samples of blackened lungs so familiar from earlier anti-smoking campaigns. Vaping is still so new that research into the health consequences has yet to catch up. Anyway, some advocates have disavowed those scare tactics.

And instead of cops standing in front of the class as in the famed D.A.R.E. program, students are likely to be the ones delivering the information.

“When you’re eighteen years old or sixteen you don’t think you’re going to die anytime soon.” said Jordan Roberts, youth prevention program manager with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “But you do care about your friends and the social aspect of that and how you’re perceived.”

When older students talk to younger students, the message can be particularly powerful.

“We’ve found that peer mentoring, one-to-one, wasn’t as effective,” said Sara Prem, an advocacy specialist with the American Lung Association in Kansas City. “But when you start creating that age difference, it has more effect.”

That kind of social pressure dismantled the positive image the tobacco industry had built around conventional smoking. Health advocates are hoping that approach will work to dissuade vaping too.

E-cigarettes really took off when the brand Juul hit the market in 2015. The company has been accused of marketing to kids. Juul’s popularity among teens grew through its successful use of social media.

Many students believe vaping poses no health risks and that e-cigarettes don’t contain nicotine — neither is true.

Countering that misinformation will be key in keeping the battle against vaping from becoming another decades-long slog. But the rapid adoption of e-cigarettes is making educators nervous.

“We’ve never seen that kind of use of a product legal or illegal in my lifetime at that rate,” said Kansas’ education commissioner Randy Watson during Tuesday’s State Board of Education meeting.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha or email bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.