A new bill in the Georgia Legislature would mandate instruction on tobacco and vapor products for students in public school grades K-12.
In a House Education Committee meeting on Feb. 9, Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, said her HB 287 would address the current vaping crisis, which has emerged in schools within the last few years.
“We have a problem with our youth and vaping,” Rich said. “Unfortunately, there is a very large misconception among young people. They do believe that smoking might be bad for them, but that vaping is safe. And that is not true, it has proven quite dangerous for many of our youth who relied upon that mistaken belief and have become very ill, who have suffered lung collapses and such.”
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s most current data, one in four high school students has tried an electronic cigarette and believe they are more acceptable in society than traditional cigarettes. A third wrongly believe vaping is less harmful than traditional cigarettes, and a quarter think vapor products are less addictive.
These misconceptions are not limited to high school students. Claire Graveline, a 25-year-old advertising student and lifelong Atlanta resident, has been addicted to e-cigarettes since 2017.
“I was never ever a smoker,” Graveline said. “I grew up with a mom who did, and I hated that my mom smoked cigarettes. When I was younger, I used to go into where she would keep her cigarettes and break them all in half.”
Graveline vividly remembers the imagery of the smoker’s lungs she was shown in health classes, and she resolved to never become a smoker. While she was in college, e-cigarettes became popular at parties. She was offered a puff from a friend. Even after trying it, she didn’t think much of it, and still thought of herself as a non-smoker.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the packaging, and what they look like,” Graveline said. “They’re so sleek, and not in your face. It came in mango, mint, fruit punch and all these flavors. It paints this picture just from looking at it, that it’s not that big of a deal.”
For Graveline, using electronic cigarettes was a social activity that turned into a powerful nicotine addiction after her boyfriend purchased a device she eventually started to use regularly.
“So many children believe that vaping is steam-cleaning their lungs, that it’s something good for them,” Fulton said.
One aspect of HB 287 would ensure children are educated early about the dangers of deceptive marketing which makes these devices seem less dangerous than traditional cigarettes.
Faye Fulton, executive vice president of the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians, applauded the bill’s proposal during Tuesday’s meeting. Fulton said Georgia’s children really need to know the truth about vapor products.
“So many children believe that vaping is steam-cleaning their lungs, that it’s something good for them,” Fulton said. “The AAFP has a national program called Tar Wars, and we can offer it to all school ages, but especially would like to get to the fourth and fifth graders before they get that first offer from a cool kid or sibling that’s offering them some type of tobacco product.”
It’s difficult to imagine children as young as fourth grade smoking. Graveline worked as a nanny throughout college and remembers the first time she discovered one of her kids was hiding an e-cigarette of their own.
“I was doing a load of laundry, and something in the washing machine was dinging around,” she said. She found a JUUL, which is a brand of popular e-cigarettes which can easily be confused with a USB drive by anyone unfamiliar with them.
“My first thought was their dad was trying to quit smoking,” Graveline said. “But then I realized, I’m doing a load of their daughter’s clothes. And she’s a seventh grader.”
Graveline also has two half-siblings who are 14 and 16 years old. She knows they have both tried vaping, and her 16-year-old sibling uses an e-cigarette regularly. She worries about their health, especially because she knows first-hand the effects this addiction has had on her physical health.
“I have definitely noticed things about me that have changed,” Graveline said. “I think that it has affected my breathing, and it affects my ability to hold my breath for long amounts of time. And that’s pretty terrifying. I really, really fear what it’s doing to younger bodies and developing lungs.”
While the complete effects of vaping on developing lungs are unknown, Rich emphasized during the committee meeting that the need for this curriculum has become especially relevant in light of the pandemic. Fulton noted the Journal of Adolescent Health announced this summer that children who vape are five times more likely to get COVID-19, and to get extraordinarily sick from the virus.
HB 287 would leave decisions on specific curriculum to the individual school boards so they can decide the best ways to present information to their students. Rich acknowledged there might be different needs or issues within rural and urban communities, and noted some ready-built curriculums already exist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other nonprofit organizations. HB 287 was passed by the House in a unanimous vote on Wednesday.
Graveline hopes the curriculum will take an empathetic approach to reach kids who may be afraid or embarrassed, like she is, to be struggling with a chemical addiction.
“I don’t always want to admit to partaking in it,” Graveline said. “And I think kids are even less willing to admit they’re doing it because they don’t want to be in fear of getting in trouble. And it’s hard to escape it, because so many people have them. They’re in movies and shows in the party scenes. Kids are human and they’re curious; they’re going to try things. It’s not necessarily their fault that they get addicted to them.”