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By Shawneece Stevenson                                  Follow East Palo Alto Today on
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November 19, 2019                    EPA Today Facebook page Follow epatoday on Twitter EPA Today Blog Icon



BACHAC anti-vaping photo

Graphic courtesy of the Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council

As a parent of high schoolers, I care deeply about the health and well-being of our youth and how they manage their stress. Through the San Mateo County Tobacco Education Coalition, I have learned the tobacco industry uses fruit- and candy-flavored tobacco products to target young people. Retailers make these products readily available at gas stations, convenience and corner stores where youth frequently visit.

Flavored tobacco products are considered “starter” products that lead young people to long-term tobacco addiction. Tobacco companies disproportionately advertise in communities of color, which contributes to increased usage amongst youth.  This is not a new tactic from the tobacco industry - I know all too well as my parents and family members started smoking in their teens  and have struggled with nicotine addiction their entire lives.  One of my relatives now grasps for every breath because of the resulting Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a progressive lung disease.

Young people in our communities access vaping and flavored tobacco products from friends and other peers who routinely have them available on campus of middle and high schools and sometimes as early as elementary schools (around 4th grade).  They also purchase them directly from tobacco retailers, even though it is illegal to sell tobacco products to individuals under 21 years.

Last year, the Black Student Unions at Menlo-Atherton and Sequoia High Schools started a #vapestopshere campaign.  In my work with the Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council (BACHAC), we began to spread the word at community events to make sure these courageous students’ voices were heard. Parents and students started sharing their own stories.  For example, one of our students was approached by a Palo Alto parent who shared that her child “holds their bowels” because it’s uncomfortable using the bathrooms at school, which are being used for vaping, and students feel pressured to take part, whether it’s as a look-out or to vape themselves. 

I cannot imagine the physical stress these students endure, even being able to take care of basic needs such as using the bathroom and feeling the pressure of being exposed and tempted to participate in vaping. But sadly, this is our children’s experience and reality. 

Vaping has been deemed a youth epidemic by the US Surgeon General and FDA due to the increased usage amongst youth. 1, 3  This isn’t just a national issue – it’s very much a local one.  So much so, that a Redwood City middle school is piloting a vaping sensor in the bathrooms and Ravenswood School District is considering this as well. Vaping Treatment programs are now available for individuals and youth who may be addicted.

When I think about school environments being safe - it's not just physical safety but emotional safety.  Young people are constantly finding ways to say no; staying away from negative peer pressure; managing adult relationships and expectations, and keeping focus on academic success. 

Maintaining an environment at school and community that is safe for all youth will take a three-pronged approach – policy; youth, family and community engagement; and intervention/treatment, where necessary. 

Black Student Union (BSU) at Menlo-Atherton and Sequoia High Schools have partnered with BACHAC to help with policy and school and family engagement.  BSU’s Youth Advocates are educating their peers and community members about the dangers of flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes and advocating for tobacco retail policies that restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes in physical retail locations.

I applaud the City Councils of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park for studying this issue and considering ordinances to protect the health of our youth.  Some neighboring communities are taking action, too, as we’ve heard about the over 2000 lung injuries and 42 deaths, 4 in California.2  I joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urging individuals not to vape: “since the specific cause or causes of lung injury are not yet known, the only way to assure that you are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from the use of all e-cigarette, or vaping, products.”

Your health and our youth’s health depend on it.  Get more information on how to take action, get involved, get help, and tell others at www.vapestopshere.com. 

Shawneece Stevenson, MSW is a Project Manager Consultant with the Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council (BACHAC).  BACHAC eliminate health disparities through innovative models of health education and services across the generations and diverse communities.  She’s long time resident of East Palo Alto and parent of students within the Sequoia Union High School District.www.bachac.org