The Wyoming Education Association recognizes that among the multitude of factors that significantly contribute to a student’s school success, student health is fundamental. There are a multitude of threats to student health, including poverty, food insecurity, lack of healthcare providers, and addiction. Substance abuse, including nicotine use via tobacco or e-cigarettes, poses substantial immediate and long-term health risks for Wyoming students and has the viable potential to impact their education negatively.
E-cigarettes, vapes, Juul pods and other electronic nicotine delivery systems are the latest threat to young Americans from an industry with a long history of selectively targeting under-age children to purchase and consume a highly addictive product.
The negative health consequences related to tobacco use have long been documented. Since the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, the addictive nature of tobacco and tobacco products, as well as the marketing practices of tobacco companies, has been thrust into the public spotlight.
The first e-cigarette was introduced in 2003 in Beijing, China, as an alternative to regular tobacco products. E-cigarettes and vape pens are battery-powered devices that produce an aerosol by heating a liquid nicotine mixture instead of producing smoke from burning tobacco. Given the relatively new nature of the product, the long-term health impacts of e-cigarettes and vaping technologies have only begun to emerge. As the list of negative long-term health impacts from electronic nicotine delivery systems use expands, the detrimental effects of nicotine on young developing brains are well-studied and fully applicable to these same technologies.
The prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is responsible for emotions, impulse control, attentiveness, learning, and memory, does not finish developing until roughly the age of 25. This area of the brain is highly susceptible to the negative impacts of nicotine which change the brain cell activity in the prefrontal cortex. Adolescents whose brains are exposed to nicotine are more likely to become addicted to nicotine, may become more impulsive, employ more risk-taking choices, have increased levels of anxiety, be less attentive, have learning difficulties, and may be more irritable.[i] These changes within the adolescent brain have substantial implications for academic achievement. In fact, data from the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey released by the Center for Disease Control highlights the relationship between tobacco/nicotine use and lower academic grades than those students who do not use tobacco/nicotine products.[ii] This data is troubling, given the high rate at which Wyoming youth are consumers of tobacco and nicotine products.
Tobacco use among Wyoming high school students is particularly troubling. The data, before Wyoming stopped participating in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System in 2015, show that Wyoming high school students have a substantially higher rate of tobacco use than the national average, with 15.7% of high school students in Wyoming smoking cigarettes compared to the national average of 10.8%.[iii] Wyoming high school students’ use of electronic nicotine delivery systems was higher than the national average as well. As of 2015, the percentage of high school students in Wyoming who used e-cigarettes, 29.6%, was higher than the percentage of those that used smokeless tobacco and cigars or cigarillos combined, 11.6% and 12.6%, respectively.[iv]
All of these data points are well above the national average, and all of them come with a price tag. The adverse health effects associated with nicotine and tobacco use are well-documented. The annual health care costs for the state of Wyoming that are directly attributable to nicotine and tobacco use are $258 million per fiscal year, more than enough to fund the projected education funding shortfalls on a year-by-year basis.[v]
Despite the prevalence of this issue, there are recommended actions that Wyoming, its citizens, and its schools can take to reduce the use of nicotine and tobacco products amongst adolescents.
The following are a list of policy recommendations by the U.S. Surgeon General to reduce the consumption of all forms of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes among our nation’s youth:
Setting price policies for tobacco and e-cigarettes, which includes taxation policies.[vi]Wyoming is ranked 44th in the U.S. for its cigarette tax of 60 cents per pack, compared to the national average of $1.81.[vii] House bill 73 proposes levying a tax on e-cigarettes at the same rate as the cigarette excise tax. The American Cancer Society recommends that excise taxes for tobacco and nicotine products be levied at a 10 percent price increase maintained against inflation, which would reduce youth smoking rates by at least 6.5 percent.[viii]
Raising and strongly enforcing minimum age-of-sale laws for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.[ix] December 20th, 2019, the President signed legislation that raised the federal minimum age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21 years of age. However, local law enforcement cannot enforce federal law. SB 50 attempts to remedy this discrepancy by passing a state law that coincides with federal legislation, which would allow local authorities to enforce the state law.
Funding comprehensive statewide tobacco control programs at levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.[x]FY2020, Wyoming currently ranks 8th amongst state spending on tobacco programs.[xi] Wyoming only spends 44.8% of the CDC’s recommended spending on tobacco prevention.[xii] However, revenue generated from an increase in excise tax on tobacco and nicotine products could be utilized to better fund these programs.
Wyoming citizens share common values that prioritize the well-being of the children of the state both in physical health and their education. Wyoming legislators can continue to demonstrate their commitment to these values and the children of the state by increasing the taxes on tobacco and nicotine products. While school districts across the state have all implemented tobacco policies, some of these policies should be addressed to include e-cigarettes as well as banning the use and possession of tobacco and nicotine products by students at events that are not held on school grounds.
The Wyoming Education Association recognizes that the education system in the state of Wyoming continues to serve as a positive example for our neighboring states. In keeping with that tradition, Wyoming should ensure that state and school district policies protect our students from the predatory marketing tactics of tobacco companies, ensuring every student the opportunity to succeed academically and into their adulthood.