The Santa Fe school board is looking to help organize a statewide pushback against a rising tide of electronic cigarette use by high school students.
The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday night on a resolution asking school districts across New Mexico to lobby lawmakers to support legislation that would raise the legal age for buying tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 from 18.
The resolution also seeks restrictions on e-cigarette advertising aimed at young people and calls for incorporating rules on such devices into tobacco-free laws and ordinances.
“The school board is responsible for the safety and well-being of our kids, so supporting legislation that equates vaping and alcohol is in our students’ best interest,” board member Steven Carrillo said Monday. “Our schools across the state represent over 300,000 kids and even more family members. Together, I think school communities can make a huge difference in this public health issue.”
The New Mexico Department of Health says the percentage of high school teens using cigars, cigarettes or smokeless tobacco dropped from 34 percent in 2003 to 17.5 percent in 2017. However, youth nicotine consumption did not decrease correspondingly during that period as 32.7 percent of high school youth used electronic cigarettes or some other form of nicotine product in 2017.
“Basically these companies had an open window for several years to promote and sell an addictive drug anywhere they wanted,” said David Tompkins, manager of community health initiatives in the New Mexico Department of Health’s tobacco use, prevention, and control program. “We’re starting to close the window, but not before we’re back where we were in 2003 in terms of youth tobacco use. It would be a big mistake for people to wait for federal policy. We’ve got a whole generation of kids becoming addicted to nicotine.”
In a 2017 survey by the state Department of Health, 24.7 percent of high schoolers said they had used an electronic cigarette in the past month, which is 3.9 percent above the national average.
Santa Fe High School Principal Carl Marano said 75 percent of the school’s disciplinary infractions this year were related to such devices.
High school students say e-cigarettes can be bought and distributed by senior students and used in a much more clandestine manner than smokeless tobacco or combustible cigarettes.
The Public Health Law Center, which aims to reduce and eliminate commercial tobacco, says New Mexico does not require a license or permit to sell electronic cigarettes.
“There’s a lack of acknowledgement of the fact that a lot of vaping goes on in the classroom. It’s very discreet. It’s hard for teachers to address it,” said Harvey McGuinness, a rising senior at Santa Fe High who serves as a student member of the school board and participates in The New Mexican’s Generation Next program for student journalists.
“I think raising the age to 21 definitely would help. It won’t solve the whole thing, but a lot of it is seniors are bringing it down to younger students.”
According to the American Lung Association, a dozen states and the District of Columbia have raised the minimum age for the sale of tobacco products to 21. Last month, the North Carolina attorney general sued e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs, accusing the company of “deceptively downplaying the potency and danger of the nicotine” and waging advertising campaigns that targeted people under the legal smoking age.
“The quick rise in popularity is due to advertising and the flavors they offer,” Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said. “I find it very disconcerting that they seem to have targeted kids with this strategy.”
In New Mexico, experts say raising the age minimum would be a crucial aspect of a broader solution.
“We know that 95 percent of addicted smokers start before they’re 18. Moving the age up to 21 will reduce usage,” Tompkins of the state Health Department said. ‘But we can’t just put the law down on a piece of paper. We need to combine it with public information campaigns and enforcement.”