FLOYDS KNOBS—A group of local students want to prevent smoking and vaping in their schools. They are now working to take their efforts to a state level.
A group of teenagers, mostly from Floyd Central High School, formed a group called Teens for Tobacco 21, or T4TT, to advocate raising the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21. The students are particularly interested in addressing the issue of electronic cigarette usage in middle schools and high schools.
The initiative started in July when a group of students from Miles For Merry Miracles started discussing the widespread use of e-cigarettes in their schools. Teresa Hebert, program director for the youth-led nonprofit, encouraged them to take action to address the issues.
The small T4TT group has been involved with organizations such as Our Place Drug & Alcohol Education Services and VOICE Indiana to raise awareness of the negative health effects caused by tobacco products and addiction problems among teenagers.
On a monthly basis, they meet with Indiana Sen. Ron Grooms (R-Jeffersonville) to discuss possible avenues for the state to raise the minimum age for tobacco products from 18 to 21.
Emily Ellis, T4TT member and Floyd Central sophomore, said one of their main goals is to educate people about the risks of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. She is concerned that the common use of e-cigarettes such as Juul are causing teenagers to become addicted to nicotine.
"I think tobacco use and, more so, Juuling in middle school and high school is really glorified," she said. "When you’re here, it’s a really popular thing to do, and everybody thinks it’s really cool. But it’s extremely addictive and dangerous."
Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that e-cigarette use among teenagers has become an "epidemic of addiction." The electronic devices create an aerosol, or vapor, by heating liquids, which often contain nicotine and flavoring.
More than 2 million middle school, high school and college students use e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2017 National Youth Tobacco Survey. The CDC reported that e-cigarettes have become the most popular tobacco products among middle and high school students since 2014.
The FDA said it sent letters to more than 1,000 retailers nationwide warning them not to sell e-cigarettes to minors. It has launched “The Real Cost” Youth E-Cigarette Prevention Campaign to inform kids about the risks associated with vaping.
"I use the word epidemic with great care," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote. "E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous—and dangerous—trend among teens. The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end."
Juul, the most popular e-cigarette device, uses pods that contain large amounts of nicotine. One pod contains about as much nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes.
E-cigarettes such as Juuls often use fruity flavored liquids, and many resemble items such as pens or flash drives. Ellis said these factors make them easier to hide in classrooms and hallways.
"They’re easily concealable, and it smells good," she said. "So it’s not like a cigarette where you can tell when someone’s been smoking."
Nathan Jekel, a T4TT member and eighth grader at Highland Hills Middle School, said he frequently sees Juuls around school. He said kids often get them from family members or older kids.
He said the flavors are one reason why they are so appealing to many kids.
"The thing they are thinking when they smoke it is that it tastes really good," Jekel said.
Hebert, who mentors the students, said she did not know how prevalent vaping is among teenagers until the group told her about what they were seeing in the schools.
"We really have to do a better job of raising awareness, and that’s what their goal is — to engage their peers, to educate their peers and their parents and to elevate them to a higher standard for healthy and happy lives," Hebert said.
Several of the T4TT members serve on Groom's youth advisory board. The teenagers have been researching topics such as tobacco use, and they meet with him to discuss the issue.
He said he is considering whether a piece of legislation raising the purchase age for tobacco products would gain enough momentum. If the idea has enough preliminary support among state legislators in the next few months, he plans to create a draft of a bill in time for next year's legislative session.
Grooms said he is gathering information about the topic and hearing recommendations from the students to inform his decision.
"I favor the discussion," he said. "I favor reduced consumption by teenagers and I believe the way to lower it among teenagers is to make it less available to them."
Hannah Tarr, Floyd Central senior and T4TT member, is one of the students working with Grooms. She said discussing issues such as tobacco products with the state senator has been a helpful experience.
"It’s given me insight into how complicated it all is," she said. "I’m hoping that being able to work with him will help some of these issues be addressed on the state level."
Hebert said she wants to find more opportunities for the students to speak about the issue. For example, she hopes to arrange for T4TT to have tables at games and other school events.
She said she is impressed with the way students are speaking out on issues that are important to them.
"They are passionate about it," she said. "They are willing to take risks, because they might have friends who are going to give them a little bit of a hard time. They could get some backlash."
Tina Hamilton, Floyd County Tobacco Prevention and Cessation coordinator, will be collaborating with T4TT for a community forum at 7 p.m. next Wednesday in Floyd Central's auditorium. The event, presented by Our Place Drug & Alcohol Services, will discuss the risks of vaping.
Hamilton said it has been helpful to hear about issues like electronic cigarettes from the students' perspective.
"We’re trying to bring more awareness of that issue, and having teen involvement with that is huge, because they are seeing it every day," she said.