An apparent surge in vaping among Nebraska teenagers is prompting a new push from lawmakers to raise the state’s age limit on e-cigarettes from 18 to 21 and ban their use in bars, restaurants and workplaces.
School officials say the crackdown would help them fight the growing use of e-cigarettes among students, who can easily hide them.
“It’s a problem for every school,” said Lisa Albers, a Grand Island Public Schools board member who is pushing for the bill. “Nobody really knew about this (until recently). It was flying under the radar.”
Albers said she’s concerned about the high concentrations of nicotine in some solutions used in e-cigarettes, as well as the fruity flavors that appeal to young people. The vaping industry touts the product as a safer alternative to cigarettes, although health advocates say they’re still harmful and can lead to lifelong addictions.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that turn liquid often containing nicotine into an inhalable vapor. They’re generally considered a less dangerous alternative to regular cigarettes, but health officials have warned nicotine is harmful to developing brains. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new policies in November to limit sales of many flavored vaping products to brick-and-mortar outlets that have either age-restricted entry or areas that aren’t accessible to people younger than 18.
Albers said students have told her that classmates sneak e-cigarettes into schools and smoke them in bathrooms. The devices are small and are easily mistaken for computer flash drives. Grand Island school officials have even caught elementary school children with them, she said.
Administrators at Scottsbluff High School have seen a similar increase in vaping products this year, with at least 50 incidents in which a student was caught, said Assistant Principal Matt Huck.
“It just seems like it’s exploded this year,” Huck said.
Huck said the school confiscates vaping devices and imposes a three-day, in-school suspension for a student’s first offense. Those caught more than once can face longer suspensions. Huck said raising the age could help address the problem.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Quick, a Democrat from Grand Island, said he has received support from senators of both parties in the ostensibly nonpartisan Legislature.
“It’s hit so fast, and not just in Nebraska,” he said. “You could have kids vaping in their homes or in secret, and the parents wouldn’t know it.”
Quick said he’ll likely have to lower the proposed age limit from 21 to 19 to overcome opposition in the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee, where the bill is sitting. But he said he will try to persuade lawmakers to raise it back to 21 when it’s debated in the full Legislature.
“I really want the best bill I can get that I can pass on the floor to get these nicotine products away from kids in school,” he said. “If I can’t get it to 21, I’ll vote for 19, because we have to have something.”
Last year, Grand Island Central Catholic High School restricted flash drives in part to make it harder for students to bring vaping devices to school. Students who want to use a flash drive must have it checked by school officials.
Principal Jordan Engle said school officials haven’t caught any student with a vaping device, but he has heard rumblings that they’re being used.
“You can call pretty much any school administrator in the state, and they’re going to tell you the same thing: that it’s widespread,” he said.
Advocates for vaping devices said they support restrictions to keep the product away from minors but argue that raising the age limit could drive more young people to use cigarettes, which would still be limited to people 18 or older. They also argue that vaping devices don’t emit the same odors or pose the same health risks as secondhand smoke in public places.
“Any bill that that sets a different age limit for tobacco products and vapor products is going to be bad for public health,” said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. “It will incentivize teens who want to use nicotine to get their nicotine in a more hazardous form — smoking.”