Local high school students tell city leaders more students are ‘vaping,’ ask city to raise tobacco age to 21

photo by: Richard Gwin

Signs warning against the sale of tobacco to minors are displayed in the window of a Lawrence store, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.

Some local high school students say a growing number of their peers are using e-cigarettes, and they want the city to raise the age to purchase tobacco-related products to decrease accessibility.

The students, who are part of a local anti-tobacco group, told Lawrence city commissioners at their meeting Tuesday that e-cigarette use, or vaping, is becoming more popular and that students who are 18 buy the products for younger students.

“I see kids that are 18 in my class take younger students — sophomores, freshmen, juniors — to the gas station and help them buy products,” said Christian LaPointe, a senior at Free State High School. “And so, I think if you had to take that extra step to go to someone who was 21, I think that it would drastically lower the number of youths, and hopefully we can get some education out there too.”

LaPointe and two other students asked the commission to create a local ordinance to raise the age to purchase tobacco-related products to 21, so as to have those products less accessible to high school students of all ages. The students said that unlike cigarettes, vaping isn’t looked down on by students and is becoming more common in Lawrence.

Ruth Gathunguri, a junior at Free State, told the commission that she sees many types of students vaping, including athletes and drama students. Gathunguri said high school students vape in and around school, including in school parking lots, locker rooms, bathrooms and even in the cafeteria without teachers or administrators realizing it. She said that while cigarettes are seen as disgusting, vaping is seen as cool.

“It’s not just affecting our ‘bad’ kids; it’s affecting everybody because we do see it as something that is socially acceptable,” Gathunguri said. “If you go into the parking lot at Free State, I can guarantee you that you will see at least 10 people vaping as you’re walking to your car. It’s something that is happening everywhere.”

E-cigarettes heat and vaporize a fluid containing nicotine that users inhale, and they often come in fruit or candy flavors. The number of teens using e-cigarettes has been rising nationwide. From 2011 to 2015, e-cigarette use among high school students rose from 1.5 percent to 16 percent and among middle school students from 0.6 percent to 5.3 percent, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Hasiya Asuku, a junior at Lawrence High School, said vaping also affects the school environment and that some 18-year-olds sell products to younger teens via social media. Asuku agreed with Gathunguri that vaping is socially acceptable, and all three students asked commissioners to consider increasing the age to buy to tobacco to 21.

The students are all members of the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence and recently formed a local anti-tobacco group. Alissa Bauer, director of communications for the club, said the students formed a local chapter of a national organization known as Resist and are also working with LiveWell Lawrence. In November, LiveWell Lawrence announced an effort to raise the age to purchase tobacco products.

About 20 cities and counties in Kansas have enacted local laws raising the age for buying tobacco products to 21, and in December, the Kansas attorney general confirmed that cities and counties may use their home rule authority to do so.

As is protocol, the commission did not discuss the topic, but Mayor Stuart Boley did thank the students for their comments.