Over the past nine years, the rate of Montana high school students who smoke tobacco has decreased by 35 percent.
In public health, that’s what we call moving the needle, and much credit goes to the Montana Tobacco-Free School Excellence Initiative, a project established to help school districts and communities prevent and reduce tobacco use by promoting comprehensive tobacco-free policy in schools.
This good news was recently distributed in a newsletter by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. In the newsletter, DPHHS said the Montana Office of Public Instruction reports that 332 of Montana’s 417 public school districts — 80 percent — have adopted comprehensive tobacco-free policy. Butte School District No. 1 is among them. The School District’s tobacco-free policy is located at https://www.bsd1.org/school-board/policies/5000-personnel/5225-tobacco-free-policy.
Despite this good news, much work remains to be done. More than one in three Montana high school students continue to use some form of tobacco, with Montana having one of the highest smokeless tobacco user rates among high school students in the country. And get this — 47 percent of students have used electronic vapor products, with seven percent of those users purchasing these products in locations such as convenience stores, supermarkets, discount stores, gas stations or vape stores. Montana prohibits the sale of such products to minors.
Research indicates that nine out of 10 adult smokers start smoking by the age of 18. Where’s the fairness in that? Exposure to nicotine during adolescence and early adulthood can cause addiction and affect brains that develop until age 25. And it’s all so preventable — tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in our country.
According to the 2017 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 22.5 percent of Montana high school students use e-cigarettes. A full 28.7 percent of high school seniors reported using electronic vapor products, with 24.2 percent of juniors, 21.6 percent of sophomores and 16 percent of freshmen reporting such use.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey also says that 12.9 percent of students report using cigars, 12.1 percent report using cigarettes, and 9.8 percent report using smokeless tobacco. Seven percent of students reported using chewing tobacco, snuff, dip, snus or dissolvable tobacco products on school property during the past 30 days.
The use of e-cigarettes by young people is particularly alarming. According to a web site of the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General (https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/), e-cigarettes are devices “that heat a liquid into an aerosol that the user inhales. The liquid usually has nicotine and flavoring in it, and other additives.” Like nicotine in cigarettes, the nicotine in e-cigarettes is addictive. “E-cigarettes are considered tobacco products because most of them contain nicotine, which comes from tobacco,” says the Surgeon General site.
In addition to nicotine, e-cigarettes may contain other harmful and potentially harmful ingredients, including very fine particles that can be inhaled into the young respiratory systems; flavors such as diacetyl, a chemical that has been linked to serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin and lead.
“E-cigarettes are very popular with young people,” says the Surgeon General site. “Their use has grown dramatically in the last five years. Today, more high school students use e-cigarettes than regular cigarettes. The use of e-cigarettes is higher among high school students than adults.”
The Surgeon General’s site says parents can influence their children’s decision to use tobacco and e-cigarettes — “even if you have used tobacco yourself, your children will listen if you discuss your struggles with nicotine addiction,” says the site. “Be clear that you don’t approve of them smoking or using e-cigarettes, and that you expect them to live tobacco-free.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a tip sheet for parents to use for these crucial conversations with their kids. It is located at https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/.
We certainly need to celebrate the decrease since 2009 in the rate of Montana high school students who smoke tobacco. But those who peddle tobacco — collectively known as Big Tobacco — and products such as e-cigarettes are relentless.
For the sake of our children’s health, we adults need to be just as relentless, and then some.