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Stop The Vaping Epidemic In Hawaii Schools

In 1994, the nation’s top tobacco executives all testified before Congress that “nicotine is not addictive.” Big Tobacco lied not just to our government, but misled the public for decades on the harms to health caused by cigarettes.

Now, 25 years later, they are doing it again. This time, in the form of sleek, easily concealable vaping devices that resemble flash drives and come in flavors that appeal to kids. A particular e-cigarette brand, Juul, is so popular that students refer to its use as “juuling.”

The youth vaping epidemic is a big concern among Hawaii’s educators and administrators. Recent data indicate that almost half of our high school students have tried e-cigarettes while 25 percent are now regular users. Vaping and juuling are so widespread on school campuses, that teens take a hit of Juul on their way to class, while school bathrooms have now become gathering places for students to vape. Teens find candy and fruit e-cigarette flavors highly attractive, while research shows that eight in 10 kids who use tobacco start with a flavored product.

Two bills were proposed at our Legislature this year to curb the vaping epidemic. Senate Bill 1009 would have ended the sales of flavored tobacco and vaping liquids, while Senate Bill 1405 would have regulated vaping products similar to tobacco.

Both bills were strongly supported by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, along with dozens of advocacy and youth-serving organizations, as well as the Department of Health and the Department of Education. Teachers, public health professionals, physicians and advocates delivered the same message to lawmakers: take action now to protect our youth from a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen on a national level, truth, evidence and a moral obligation to protect the health of our youth are no match for the deep influence, deceptive tactics, and deeper pockets of Big Tobacco. In 2018, through a statewide preemption bill, Big Tobacco convinced state lawmakers to take away the authority of county lawmakers to regulate the sales of tobacco products including e-cigarettes at the local level. Now, lobbyists can solely focus on undermining tobacco control efforts at the state level in Hawaii.

E-cigarette regulation measures failed this year. The flavor ban bill, SB 1009, was shelved in its final House committee, Finance, preventing it from moving forward. SB 1405 passed out of the Legislature, but without the language that would have included e-cigarettes in regulations that already apply to cigarettes and tobacco products — taxes, licensing and permitting, and online sales restrictions.

Instead of regulating the vaping industry, the contents of the bill now place the responsibility on school educators to confiscate vaping devices without even asking for input on this from HSTA or teachers. This portion of the proposal was not included in any draft prior to its last House committee when this language was inserted.

The bill also focuses on penalizing youth for possession of these products, shifting the responsibility from the industry, when youth may already be addicted to vaping.

Hawaii’s educators are fully committed to supporting all students’ well-being by providing a safe learning environment that enables them to reach academic success. But schools should be places for learning, not juuling. Let us not place the burden on our teachers and parents to tackle this issue alone. Who will protect our kids when school is not in session?

Make no mistake, vaping is just Big Tobacco in electronic form and Hawaii lawmakers need to enact more meaningful action to combat vaping and regulate the industry before we lose another entire generation to nicotine. The most effective policies we can create to protect our kids will end the predatory sale tactics used for candy-flavored tobacco and include vaping products in the state regulations that already apply to cigarettes.

Legislation may be delayed, but Hawaii’s teachers continue to stand beside our legislative champions and work with our communities to ensure that the health of our keiki is protected and the tobacco industry is held accountable for their actions.

Anthony McCurdy/Civil Beat