Schools prepare to tackle tobacco use

Local school systems are preparing to reiterate and enforce tobacco rules on campus in the coming school year.

This October, Ohio will join 17 other states, plus Washington D.C., in raising the legal purchasing age for tobacco from 18 to 21 on all tobacco and electronic cigarette sales.

Gov. Mike DeWine signed the increase into law with the fiscal year 2020-2021 operating budget last month. He also vetoed a provision for those currently aged 18 to 20 who can legally purchase tobacco now from purchasing after Oct. 1.

“I hope this will reinforce what we teach about maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” said Frontier Local Schools Superintendent Brian Rentsch on Tuesday. “As a school system, we try to enforce a tobacco-free life and provide resources, but it takes a community to raise a child and we all need to do our part.”

The law change took four years of advocacy to pass at the state level, following grassroots campaigns in municipalities and counties across the state.

According to the national Tobacco 21 initiative, an estimated 259,000 children now under the age of 18 will eventually die prematurely due to tobacco inhalation, with 6,400 children becoming daily smokers each year.

“The law is the law, we’re still a tobacco-free campus (but) Juuls (electronic cigarettes), vaping and chew are huge problems for us,” said Marietta City Schools Superintendent Will Hampton. “At the high school they take Juuls from kids daily and it’s all over the middle school, too.”

The American Lung Association estimates that Ohio’s annual health care cost directly caused by tobacco use is $5.64 billion, and estimates another $5.88 billion in lost productivity.

“There have been several bills also on the national level to raise the purchase age,” said Michelle Zimmerman, a senior specialist with the American Cancer Society. “(Kentucky Senator) Mitch McConnell is sponsoring one that’s gaining some traction, but we still want to advocate for local cities and for states to pass their laws based on the health needs of their communities. I’m from Marietta and it still boggles my mind when I go home to visit or go hiking in Hocking Hills to see how many people are smoking.”

Teenage rebellion, high-stress jobs, generations of social smoking and addiction are all factors in tobacco behaviors, according to the National Institute of Health.

But because of nicotine’s effect on brain neurochemistry, it can be hard to stop.

“So if we can delay the onset of tobacco use to when a child’s brain is more developed, we hope fewer kids will make that choice and develop that addiction,” said Hampton. “(For staff) we do offer support for those who want to quit through our insurance provider and there are free resources locally, too.”

Rentsch said consequences for students who bring snuff, electronic cigarettes, vape pens or cigarettes to campus can range.

“It’s dependent on what you’re doing, but we can go so far as a suspension, or pursue therapy and addiction services,” he said. “We do drug test here and we do test for nicotine.”

Both superintendents said they hope the more stringent law encourages businesses, and family and friends of those under 21 to discourage tobacco use.

“But some of it, you’re fighting the culture that’s embedded or modeled in the community,” said Hampton.

Janelle Patterson can be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.

By the numbers:

• Ohio adult smoking/electronic cigarette use rate: 21.1 percent.

• Ohio adult tobacco use rate: 26.9 percent.

• Ohio high school smoking/electronic cigarette use rate: 8.4 percent.

• Ohio middle school smoking/electronic cigarette use rate: 1 percent.

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Lung Association.

At a glance:

• All adults under age 21 in Ohio will no longer be able to purchase tobacco products beginning Oct. 1.

• The age limit was passed in the state operating budget in July.

Source: Times research.