A new initiative has Missouri officials hoping to bring more awareness to the dangers of vaping.
In October, Gov. Mike Parson signed an executive order setting the “Clear the Air” campaign into motion. With the Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education, Health and Senior Services and Public Safety, the goal of the campaign is to provide parents, educators and students various resources to better inform them of the risks of vaping through online toolkits and informative videos and graphics.
“DESE’s role in the campaign is really ensuring that we are using all of our existing communication platforms to share this message with our Missouri public school districts and charter schools so that our educators and Missouri families are informed about the vaping epidemic and really how this is affecting our children — both their well-being as well as their academic success,” DESE Communications Coordinator Mallory McGowin said. “Our educators in Missouri schools are seeing this every single day, and so making sure that DESE is helping to put these resources in front of them is the least we can do to help them address this every day.”
Vaping has been around since the mid to late 2000s, Randall Williams, the director of DHSS, said. However, in the last two years, a doubling in the amount of teenagers vaping has been seen.
He added that 90% of people who become addicted to nicotine do so before the age of 21, and the effects of vaping are becoming clearer.
“What the science is showing is that some of the toxins and additives that children can be exposed to when they vape cause damage to areas of their brain that specialize in attention, learning and mood,” McGowin said. “In all of those (campaign) materials, it talks about that the amount of nicotine that one receives while vaping is almost or exactly equivalent to the amount of nicotine that’s in an entire pack of cigarettes. I think there is a misconception by a lot of folks and even some of our families in Missouri that vaping may be a healthier alternative to smoking, and while some may make that case, it’s certainly something we need to make aware that it is not healthy in and of itself with these additives and some toxins that are in there.”
Williams added that 43 deaths have been associated with EVALI (E-Cigarette Vaping Associated Lung Injury) in the U.S., with two of those being in Missouri.
It’s all part of the information that the campaign hopes to relate to families, educators and students across the state.
“We’re being very purposeful working with our advocacy partners: The American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, Missouri State Medical Association, the National Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse,” Williams said. “But I think the major difference in our campaign is we’re partnering all of those with DESE. The first step was to get out the message, ‘Do not vape if you’re a teenager, and nobody should be vaping vitamin E or tampering with devices using marijuana.’”
Cessation and treatment options also are included in the campaign’s materials.
And while some initiatives may show signs of fizzling out over a certain period of time, McGowin said that as the issue evolves, so too will the campaign.
“I certainly think that there’s a lot of attention on this right now, and there’s some new information that’s going to be added to the toolkit very soon, if it hasn’t already,” she said. “But I do suspect that, you know, like any public health awareness campaign, this will evolve.”
Williams agreed, saying that the campaign is the start of a process that should push for more robust conversations on the topic.
He added that much of the country seems to be in a sort of data-collection mode regarding e-cigarettes and vaping. Only seven states have banned flavored vaping, while the other 43 have not, he said.
“And I think you’re going to see in the next six months a lot of movement nationally by the federal government, both the legislature and President Trump, around this whole issue of whether or not vaping should be illegal federally for anyone under 21,” Williams said. “I think you’re going to see conversations in both Congress and in Missouri about the flavored vaping, especially the marketing of it to teenagers.”
From a local perspective, the St. Joseph School District’s Superintendent of Schools Dr. Doug Van Zyl said he appreciates the state bringing more attention to vaping as a problem among young people, though educators will have to find the time to incorporate such messages into their days.
“And we hope that parents would partner with us and be checking students’ pockets, backpacks, etc. so those items aren’t making their way to school, because it does take away from the instructional time and from what our administrators and staff can do.”
Van Zyl also said he hopes students and parents take an active role in keeping themselves educated on the effects of vaping going forward.