Schools struggle to educate about the dangers of vaping; raising tobacco age to 21 could help, officials say

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- With students going back to social interactions at school, there's growing concern from school administrators teen vaping is becoming a problem -- again.

While the latest statistics show vaping among teens was at its lowest rate in four years, there are already signs from school administrators things are taking a turn.

"We started to see a reduction in the use, however during COVID we're seeing an upswing again," said Gregg Wieczorek, principal of Heartland Arrowhead and president of the National Principals Association.

In 2020, the National Youth Tobacco Survey found 1.8 million fewer teens using e-cigarettes compared to 2019. While it's encouraging news, Wieczorek and other superintendents are worried vaping this school year is already becoming an issue.

"We had about 80% of the students face-to-face last year and we saw a pretty significant uptick, along with the number of people getting caught. It was another problem we had to deal with," Wieczorek said.

For students who were not back in the classroom due to the pandemic, tobacco researchers believe online learning may have reduced vaping trends.

On the other hand, if parents were not at home, students could have easily got their hands on highly addictive e-cigarettes.

"We also know during this pandemic a lot of kids are really, really anxious," said Megan Piper, associate director of UW Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention. "And a lot of kids pick up nicotine products, e-cigarettes, to help them cope with the stress."

Vaping Prevention Efforts Pause During Pandemic

Shortly after the CDC began identifying Vitamin E Acetate as the culprit behind thousands of vaping illnesses that sent several Wisconsin teens to the hospital with significant lung damage, state efforts got underway in 2019 to education students about the dangers of these products.

School officials often credit prevention programs in helping curb the teen vaping epidemic, but once COVID-19 hit, these resources came to a halt.

That's because many districts were unable to invite guest speakers to their schools to talk about how nicotine can impact brain development that controls attention, learning, mood and impulse control.

"Until we get kids and parents to under the serious health issues, I think [vaping] will still be fad," said Mark Lichte, superintendent at Lake County School in Delafield.

Tobacco 21 Legislation

Lichte and other school officials are rallying behind an effort they believe will make it harder for students to access vaping products. It's often referred to as "Tobacco 21," a bill that would raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy tobacco products.

President Donald Trump in 2020 signed a bill that raised the federal tobacco age to 21, but Wisconsin is unable to enforce it because legislation has yet to pass to mirror federal law.

The legal purchasing age in Wisconsin for tobacco products remains at 18.

This resulted in law enforcement agencies caught off guard, and many were confused on which law to enforce.

"Until Wisconsin catches up and matches federal law, we're stuck enforcing what Wisconsin has at 18," said Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman. "We have issues doing compliance checks on businesses and relators because of this conflict."

A pair of lawmakers, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield), are once again reintroducing legislation to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 in Wisconsin.

The bipartisan bill never passed both chambers last year, but it wasn't because it lacked support. Instead, lawmakers said they simply ran out of time to get it done.

The hope is once it passes, law enforcement can start enforcing it and tobacco researchers believe it will have a tremendous impact on the number of vaping products in schools.

"If you have to be 21 to get a hold of it, that means the older kids in high school can't be buying it legally, and therefore distributing it through these informal pathways," said Piper.

In the meantime, school administrators and health experts will continue their efforts to deter teens from vaping.

"It's about preventing them from getting started, once they get started they can get hooked very quickly, said Wieczorek.

On Thursday, the Judiciary and Public Safety committee held a public hearing on the Tobacco 21 bill. The co-chairs of the committee and bill sponsors remain confident it will pass the Legislature with bipartisan support.

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