New bill would ban e-cigarettes in Utah schools

(Steven Senne | AP file photo) A high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass., on April 11, 2018.

Fearing “alarming rates of addiction,” a Utah lawmaker wants to require all schools to draft policies banning electronic cigarettes and start teaching students to avoid them as early as the fourth grade.

“We just know we have to do something,” said Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan. “The incidents are increasing dramatically, and kids are not always sure that it’s harmful.”

Her proposal, HB58, passed unanimously through the House Education Committee on Thursday.

It’s been a much anticipated measure and comes after the Utah Board of Education created an emergency rule in the fall — after hearing increasing concerns from teachers and principals — to allow schools to start confiscating the vaping devices. Pulsipher’s bill would put that effort into law.

Under it, all public schools and districts would have to create formal policies to destroy or turn e-cigarettes over to law enforcement when students bring them to campus.

That is meant to match efforts by the state Health Department, which 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 vapes, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The latter have been implicated in an outbreak of serious lung illnesses nationwide, including more than 100 in Utah.

Some administrators have told Pulsipher that they don’t know what authority they have to block e-cigarettes as they’ve seen more students using them — even though it’s illegal for minors to possess nicotine products. And if they confiscate them they aren’t sure what to do with them.

The bill expressly allow schools to take the devices from students.

But the larger part of the legislation focuses on prevention.

Pulsipher said she helped conduct a recent study of students and 10% said they regularly use e-cigarettes. A few of the respondents were in sixth grade.

“We’re at a point where school bathrooms are now being referred to as ‘the vape room,’” she said.

Her legislation would require districts to provide addiction support helping students who already use e-cigarettes to stop. And it would also mandate that all schools launch programs aimed at preventing kids from using them altogether.

Additionally, the state would add a new section about the harmful effects of vaping to the health curriculum. Teachers would start instructing students in fourth grade.

The bill includes a $5 million fiscal note to fund those prevention programs, giving a $3,000 stipend to one instructor at each school who leads the efforts �� similar to what a coach makes — and $1,000 for supplies. Pulsipher intends for it to be funded by a tax on electronic cigarettes and cartridges that is currently being considered by the Legislature.

Pulsipher has support from the state Board of Education, the Utah Education Association, the Utah PTA, the Utah Eagle Forum and several school districts, which all came to speak in favor of the legislation.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a retired school teacher, said she saw issues beginning when she was still in the classroom. And now she worries her grandson might pick up smoking e-cigarettes.

She joked that she likes to send him gruesome pictures of the impacts of vaping to scare him. But she wants schools to take the lead on more effective prevention efforts. Pulsipher agreed and said, “What we’d really like to do is to not have them start to begin with.”