After hearing increasing concerns from teachers and principals, the Utah Board of Education passed an emergency measure Thursday allowing schools to ban electronic cigarettes and vaping devices — and to create rules to confiscate, destroy or turn them over to law enforcement when students do bring them to campus.
“This gives school districts a simple direction and a simple solution that they now have control over,” board Chairman Mark Huntsman said.
The new policies, which had unanimous support, will take effect Jan. 8 — the start of the winter term. And every public school district and charter in the state will be required to create an individual policy on how they will restrict e-cigarette devices and products.
The move comes, too, as the state health department has tried to enact restrictions on vaping, worried that the popular flavored nicotine products attract young people, in particular, and can eventually lead to kids using illicit THC products. The latter have been implicated in an outbreak of serious lung illnesses nationwide, including more than 100 in Utah.
Several school board members said they have received calls in the past few months from worried administrators not sure what authority they had to block e-cigarettes as they’ve seen more students using them. Before the rules passed Thursday, there was no clear answer.
“They’ve been asking, ‘What do I do? Is there a policy?’” Huntsman said.
The measures approved by the board — in addition to requiring district policies — expressly allow schools to take the devices from students. They can then chose to either dispose of them or hand them over to police if there’s suspicion that the device contains an illicit substance.
The devices are defined in the rules as anything “used to deliver or capable of delivering vapor containing nicotine or another substance to an individual’s respiratory system.”
Many do contain nicotine, derived from tobacco, which state law already dictates may not be sold to anyone under 19. But some also contain illegal drugs, such as THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
For nearly an hour, board members debated whether schools should be able to take the devices — because some students spend upward of $100 on them — and whether police should be involved. Other members countered that schools don’t have the resources to know what substance a kid is using without law enforcement checking.
One member, Scott Hansen, said there needs to be a clear “chain of evidence” when that happens. He also wondered with medical cannabis being legal in Utah, if districts would be liable for taking devices with that.
Patty Norman, deputy superintendent of student achievement, responded: “That’s not the appropriate way to deliver medical marijuana. So it should not ever be in a vaping device.”
Another member, Cindy Davis, wondered if students could use laptops or phones to vape and if those would need to be confiscated, too. Huntsman clarified those are just used to charge e-cigarettes. Member Janet Cannon called this “really the issue of our time.”
Some schools in the state already have policies, but enforcement appears to be inconsistent and authority was uncertain. The point of the rules was to give clarity.
State Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, has drafted a similar bill about e-cigarettes in schools that she intends to push during the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 27.
The first part of her legislation also asks that districts be required to have policies in place for vaping. But it would additionally include more education in health classes for fourth and fifth graders on not using the devices. And it would include funding for districts to start prevention campaigns.
She presented numbers to the school board Thursday from a recent state survey that showed 30,000 Utah students — about 10% of those who responded — said they used e-cigarettes. (By comparison, roughly 20,000 said they’d tried marijuana and 17,000 had alcohol.)
“The use of vaping devices just keeps climbing,” she said. “That’s very alarming. This is a very harmful, addicting substance.”
On Friday, Intermountain Healthcare also announced new guidelines for doctors who treat vaping-related illnesses.