Nearly one-third of secondary students in the Weber-Morgan area said they had experimented with vaping products at least once in a 2019 survey.
In response, the Weber-Morgan Health Department is using funds it received from a new tax on e-cigarette products to subsidize programs working to lower that number.
“Any substance use that’s taking place among teens is concerning,” said Kristi Jones, a tobacco prevention and control specialist at the health department. “We do know that it affects their brain development and many aspects of their life.”
The $300,000 given to the health department is the first sum of money from a bill passed by the Utah State Legislature last spring. In addition to raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products — and in some cases e-cigarettes — to 21, the legislation tacked a 56% tax onto e-cigarette purchases.
The state began enforcing the tax July 1.
Some of the taxes collected, the bill dictated, would be distributed to “tobacco prevention, reduction, cessation or control” programs through the Utah Department of Health.
Weber-Morgan’s portion of that grant money was given to Bonneville Communities that Care Coalition, Roy Communities that Care Coalition, Comunidades Unidas, Weber School District Student Services and Ogden School District Student Advocacy Services.
Each organization is working to prevent e-cigarette and tobacco use among youth in Weber County, where numbers are consistently higher than the state average.
While approximately 23.8% of secondary students in the state have tried vaping, students in the Weber-Morgan area are nearly 10 points above the average at 33.1%. Local students who regularly use e-cigarettes totaled 18.4% versus 12.4% for Utah overall, and 1.7% of Weber-Morgan students smoke regular cigarettes compared with 1.5% statewide.
Jones said Weber-Morgan’s youth tobacco use numbers have been higher than the state average for nine years running. The best way to cut those numbers, she said, is by taking an approach that focuses on early prevention.
“Let’s take it a step further back and ask, why are these youth vaping?” Jones said.
The state’s biannual Student Health and Risk Prevention survey, or SHARP, aims to provide health administrators and educators with an answer to that and other questions. The survey gauges students’ exposure to risks associated with their community, family, school and peer group and how those influence decision-making.
After analyzing SHARP data in the Ogden School District, Director of Student Advocacy Aspen Florence said the district decided to use its grant money to expand its substance abuse education focus to three high-risk elementary schools.
“In order to actually be preventative, we needed to start in our elementary schools,” Florence said.
Fifth and sixth graders at the schools will receive additional education on the risks associated with substance abuse. The district will hire an additional staff member at each of the three elementary schools who will oversee the program.
“We have programs in place in elementary schools to help build social and academic skills, but nothing about drug prevention,” Florence said.
She added that the program will also encourage staff to build relationships with students to monitor for SHARP-designated risk factors in their personal lives.
All three of the elementary schools have been categorized as Title I by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning they have a high concentration of students living in poverty. Among the risk factors for substance abuse identified by SHARP is “extreme economic deprivation.”
“The effects of (vaping) on a student’s health are not great, but more than anything it’s a red flag that other parts of that student’s life are not going well,” Florence noted.
These risk factors also increase the likelihood of delinquency, teen pregnancy, mental health problems, violence and dropping out of school.
“We really hope that with the comprehensiveness of (the program), as the students move into junior high and high school, that we’ll have lower rates of substance use and higher rates of attendance and academic success,” Florence said.
Both the Ogden and Weber school districts have policies against tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Disciplinary measures in both districts include giving the student a tobacco citation and, potentially, referring them to juvenile court.
The grant programs are meant to prevent future health problems and connect students who are heading into trouble to resources that would help them reverse course.
“We hope that youth will see a higher risk associated with drug use after this,” Jones said. “We can start changing some of these norms and creating a more healthy environment … rather than the more addictive habits.”