AUGUSTA — Public health advocates hoping to lower the number of Maine youths who are using e-cigarettes, or vaping, urged lawmakers Tuesday to support a bill that would ban the products on school grounds.

Jocelyn Ruffner, an eighth-grader at Frank Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth, told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee that the issue is important and vaping in school is a big problem. Ruffner said she doesn’t vape, but students in her school do and it’s causing many to lose interest in their studies, sports or other extracurricular activities.

A high school student vapes near a school campus in Cambridge, Mass., last year.

“I live in a pretty sheltered community,” Ruffner said, “So people think this is funny and cool and it is not going to affect me in the long run. And the people who think it’s funny and cool can then lead their friends into thinking it is funny and cool and they should try it just once and then it just turns into this thing.”

Ruffner’s testimony came after health experts, teachers union representatives, school officials and lawmakers also testified in support the measure. There was no oral testimony against the bill, but lobbyists from the Vapor Technology Association, an industry trade group, were in the audience.

Dick Durost, the executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said vaping in school is the largest and most time-consuming disciplinary problem in high schools across the state.

“It’s happening in the bathrooms, it’s happening on the buses and it is happening in the classrooms,” Durost said. “And if you don’t know what you are looking for, or even if you do, it’s very difficult to catch them in the act.”

Other supporters of the bill said that while many school districts already have policies restricting or banning vaping devices, the rules can vary from district to district. They said that changing state law would send a clear message and draw more attention to the problem, which health advocates say can lead young people to smoke cigarettes.

Vicky Wiegman, the substance use prevention coordinator for Lewiston High School, said one of the biggest issues with vaping is students do not believe it is damaging to their health.

She said youth vaping had reached “epidemic” proportions and was threatening to undermine all the progress made over the years on reducing smoking among teens or keeping them from starting the habit.

“Many youth do not seem to have accurate awareness of the potential dangers associated with these products. In other words they simply believe they are safe to use,” Wiegman said.

Hillary Schneider, the state government relations director for the American Cancer Society and Cancer Action Network, said the delivery of nicotine with e-cigarettes – which can be expensive – leads to nicotine dependency and potentially smoking for some who seek a less expensive alternative. Schneider said the bill would simply update existing state law to include products that did not even exist when the state passed a ban on the use of tobacco products in schools.

She said the use of e-cigarettes by high school students in Maine had increased from 1.5 percent of all students in 2011 to 20.8 percent in 2018, and that smoking-related disease and illness costs the state about $811 million a year in health care expenses. Schneider said her organization urged the committee to consider amending the bill to include a ban for all events at a public school or any event sanctioned by a public school, even if it wasn’t on school grounds.

The hearing on the bill, L.D. 152, comes on the heels of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ budget address, in which she pointed out that her budget includes using $10 million from the state’s tobacco settlement fund to bolster smoking prevention and education for youth, including vaping.

The bill is being considered as increasing evidence shows youth vaping appears to be contributing to a flattening of teen smoking rates which had previously been in steady decline. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data Monday from a national survey of 20,000 middle and high school students last spring that found about 8 percent of high schoolers said they had recently smoked cigarettes in 2018, and about 2 percent of middle schoolers did. Those findings were about the same seen in similar surveys in 2016 and 2017.

The survey also found that about 2 in 5 high school students who used a vaping or tobacco product used more than one kind, and that the most common combination was e-cigarettes and cigarettes. Also, about 28 percent of high school e-cigarette users said they vaped 20 or more days in the previous month – a nearly 40 percent jump from the previous year.

Smoking, the nation’s leading cause of preventable illness, is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths each year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the sale of e-cigarettes and tobacco products to those under 18.

E-cigarettes are generally considered better than cigarettes for adults who are already addicted to nicotine. But health officials have worried for years that electronic cigarettes could lead youths to switch to smoking traditional cigarettes.

The bill will next be scheduled for a work session, when the committee will vote to either reject or recommend the bill for passage before the full Legislature in the weeks ahead.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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