/ Modified sep 20, 2019 4:03 p.m.

Vaping on campus, new El Tour CEO, Arizona politics

How Pima County and one school district are working to discourage vaping among teens.

The Arizona Department of Health Services this week announced three cases of respiratory illness linked to vaping, adding to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dubs an epidemic. According to the CDC, more than 30 states have reported at least 530 cases and seven deaths. Of those cases, 16% of the illnesses are attributed to people 18 and under. Health officials are sounding alarms about the rise in vaping among teens. Arizona 360 and Lorraine Rivera visited Marana High School to see how it is tackling the issue head on.

Vaping on campus has become a bigger issue over the last few years, according to Marana High Principal David Mandel. Marana Unified School District, a district with more than 12,000 students, disciplined 169 students for vaping during the 2018-19 school year. Since early August, when the new school year began, 32 students have been disciplined across the district. Marana High confiscates vaping devices. If the devices are suspected to contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, they're turned over to a school resource officer.

“Oftentimes when students are confronted after we suspect use, they’ll provide them to us,” Mandel said. The school will briefly suspend the student. When a student returns, Mandel said administrators try to understand their reasons for vaping and educate them about the risks. Students also meet with a drug prevention coach, a position that receives funding through a state grant.

“Sometimes there are underlying mental health issues that the student is using this to self-medicate for,” Mandel said. “Our first avenue is: ‘What help do you need? And let’s talk about that.’”

Mandel says vaping trends at the school likely mirror what’s happening on a wider scale. More than half of all high school students in the state have tried vaping, according to ADHS. Nationwide, the CDC reported e-cigarette use among teens increased from 11% to 20% between 2017 and 2018.

In Ali Pierce’s classroom, the English teacher said she has noticed behavioral changes in students who vape. “I have absolutely had students who have been on edge. They’ve been really grumpy or moody,” Pierce said. “Every once in a while a kid will tell me, ‘I quit vaping,’ or ‘I’m not vaping anymore,’ and they’re going through nicotine withdrawal.”

Mandel views Marana High as a fixture in the community. He says many of its graduates continue to live there and eventually send their children to the district. He believes parents play a key role in preventing students from vaping or abusing other substances.

“I hope that parents continue to be our partner in this,” Mandel said. “Our goal is high school graduation. The things that get in the way of that and create an unsafe environment ... I want to see all those go away.”

Pima County shares concerns school districts have on the issue of vaping and nicotine addiction. The Pima County Health Department provides outreach to schools and families. Arizona 360 learned more about those efforts from Rebecca O’Brien, tobacco and chronic disease prevention program manager.

“We partner with a number of schools to provide tobacco education directly in the classroom. Then we also partner with actual teachers,” O’Brien said. The department also gives presentations to different groups in the community interested in more information. O’Brien said the county is concerned with tobacco use and vaping because both deliver nicotine.

“We do know electronic nicotine delivery devices in addition to nicotine do have a number of potentially harmful chemicals within them. Certain flavorings, metals and other cancer-causing chemicals. So they’re not harm-free by any means,” O’Brien said. “There is some concern that young people who are using vaping products might move on to other tobacco products like traditional cigarettes.”

The Pima County Board of Supervisors rejected an ordinance this week that would raise the legal age to purchase tobacco-related products to 21. It would have also made it illegal to use e-cigarettes or vape in areas where smoking is already prohibited. Leading up to the board’s vote, the Pima County Health Department hosted a series of community meetings to solicit feedback.

“Some of the most effective ways to combat big tobacco to prevent youth especially from using tobacco is at the policy level. You kind of get a bigger bang for your buck when you’re looking at policy versus more individualized one-on-one education,” O’Brien said.

To increase awareness about the dangers of vaping, health organizations are producing more public service announcements on the issue including Pima County and the Arizona Department of Health Services. Warning labels are also on vaping materials, similar to what appears on tobacco products. Arizona 360 got insight into the effectiveness of this type of messaging from Bo Yang, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona communication department who specializes in health communications.

“I do think people pay attention to those warning messages while they are at the same time exposed to messages probably promoting e-cigarettes,” Yang said.

While the dangers of vaping aren’t fully understood, organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have published materials suggesting they’re less harmful than regular cigarettes. E-cigarette manufacturers have also incorporated a similar message in their marketing.

“For smokers, they are the people who are more likely to buy e-cigarette products because most of them tend to think these products are going to be less harmful than cigarettes,” Yang said.

A recent study Yang participated in found that graphic warning labels on cigarette packaging were more effective than text-only labels because they evoked stronger negative emotions in smokers.

Organizers of El Tour de Tucson are gearing up for November’s 37th annual race with kick off events for cyclists and open registration. It will be El Tour’s first event with new Perimeter Bicycling CEO Charlene Grabowski at the helm. With about two months on the job, Grabowski is still new to her role and came out of retirement to run the well-known Tucson event. She appeared on Arizona 360 to describe strides made so far.

“We’ve done a lot already. The people, we looked at each of them as individuals and said, ‘What are their strengths?’” Grabowski said. Other changes include ramping up marketing efforts on social media. Outside companies donated computers and helped Perimeter Bicycling upgrade its internet.

“The community has just rallied. Everybody wants this to happen, so I feel responsible to make it happen,” Grabowski said.

Financial woes put the event in the spotlight earlier this year, prior to Grabowksi’s hiring. Perimeter Bicycling owed Pima County $180,000 for last year’s race. By April, the board announced it successfully paid its dues.

“There was such an outpouring of give, give, give. We needed a little responsibility and maturity and work to take a look at our own organization and say, ‘But what do we need to host this amazing ride?’” Grabowski said.

Grabowski estimates it will cost $900,000 to put on this year’s event. Organizers have received about $500,000 combined from Banner Health, Rio Nuevo and Pima County.

A decision to cancel a presidential primary and the state’s newest Supreme Court justice are just a few topics making waves in Arizona political news. Arizona 360 got analysis on some of the latest hot-button issues from Hank Stephenson, editor of the Yellow Sheet Report — an online publication from the Arizona Capitol Times.

Topics included a decision from Arizona Republicans to cancel its 2020 presidential primary; a ruling from the Arizona Supreme Court that overrode Phoenix’s anti-discrimination ordinance; Gov. Doug Ducey’s controversial appointment of Bill Montgomery to the state’s Supreme Court; and recent claims by Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers that any attempts to reform sex education in the Legislature next year are part of a push to “radicalize children.”

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