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New vaping prevention program launched in Suffolk County schools

A new vaping prevention program is being piloted in Suffolk County schools, County Executive Steve Bellone announced Tuesday.

Citing an “alarming  rise” in teenagers who use e-cigarettes, the program, Vape Out, will launch in four Suffolk County school districts Jan. 30.

“The popularity of electronic cigarettes has exploded into mainstream culture to the point where school officials in Suffolk County have asked our public health officials for clarity and assistance in dealing with record numbers of students who are vaping on school grounds,” Mr. Bellone said in a statement.

The county executive recently signed legislation that would increase the fine for those who sell tobacco products to minors.

In his State of the State address earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a plan to raise the statewide age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products from 18 to 21. Suffolk County already enacted legislation raising the age to 21 in 2015. Gov. Cuomo’s plan would also allow the state health department to ban flavored e-cigarette liquids.

Vape Out is the preventative program that will be piloted in North Babylon, Hampton Bays, Port Jefferson and Bayport-Blue Point. In the coming months, the program will be rolled out in schools throughout the county, Mr. Bellone said.

Every two years, the Riverhead Youth Coalition and Riverhead Community Awareness Program surveys students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 on drug, alcohol and risky behaviors.

In 2016, 25 percent of 12th graders at Riverhead High School said they vaped within the last 30 days. In 2018, 38 percent reported using e-cigarettes in the same time frame. “That is an indication that they’re a regular user,” said executive director Felicia Scocozza.

There was a slight uptick among 10th graders, but Ms. Scocozza pointed out that the most staggering increase was among middle schoolers. In 2018, 22 percent of eighth graders said they vaped within the last 30 days. That’s more than double than the 10 percent of eighth graders who reported vaping regularly in 2016, she said.

According to the county executive, the Vape Out program is comprised of peer-to-peer education, an enforcement program and parent education forums.

In lieu of out of school suspension, the program encourages school administrators to require students who are caught vaping to complete a self-assessment, discuss the harmful effects of vaping, demonstrate refusal skills and discuss the New York Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act.

Dr. James Tomarken, Commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said in a statement that vaping implies a “safer” alternative to real tobacco products. “[E-cigarettes] deliver an aerosol that may contain ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and chemicals that hamper brain development and are linked to addiction, lung disease, and cancer,” he said.

E-cigarette use among teenagers is now considered a health epidemic by the Food and Drug Administration. In Sept. 2018, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement that e-cigarettes have become a “ubiquitous and dangerous trend” among teens. “The FDA won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a tradeoff for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products,” he continued.

As a result of the uptick in reported use in Riverhead, Ms. Scocozza said vape prevention is being incorporated into fifth- and sixth-grade CAP programs at Pulaski Street Elementary School.

The Youth Coalition, which is made up of students in grades seven through 12, has made vaping a focal point in their prevention work, Ms. Scocozza said. “This is the issue that they’re taking on. They brought it to our attention initially because they could see it was becoming an issue. We’re hearing that it’s happening at school, around school. It’s easy to get away with because you don’t see it or smell it,” she said.

Additionally, she said CAP is working on partnering with the Riverhead Central School District for a parent presentation on vaping this year. “Parents might not even know what these things look like,” she said. “They can be designed to look like a thumb drive.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control National Youth Tobacco Survey, e-cigarette use skyrocketed between 2017 and 2018. The survey found that more than 3.6 million high school and middle school students are currently using e-cigarettes.

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