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Missouri launches ‘time-sensitive’ youth vaping awareness campaign

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — In what officials called the “start of a process,” Missouri launched an educational campaign regarding the health risks of vaping geared toward youth Monday. 

The campaign is part of last month’s executive order from Gov. Mike Parson directing the Departments of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and Public Safety (DPS) to come together to launch an educational awareness effort.

And it comes on the heels of two confirmed deaths from vaping-related illnesses in Missouri. 

The “Clear the Air” campaign utilizes social media, videos, and graphics targeting young Missourians to deter and warn about the dangers of vaping or using certain chemicals along with e-cigarettes. 

“One of the most important responsibilities I have as governor is to protect the health and well-being of our future generations,” Parson said in a statement. “Vaping is truly an epidemic among our youth, and we must take action now to educate them about the potential risks of these products.” 

Flanked by “Clear the Air” campaign signs, Parson told reporters the initial thought was vaping “was going to be a deterrent for smoking,” but the state is now “trying to figure out if we’ve created another problem.” He said he would leave it up to the legislature to determine if a ban on vaping or certain flavored products should be enacted. 

‘A time-sensitive issue’ 

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams noted the public health crisis regarding vaping is multifaceted and centered around two themes: the increase in teenage vaping and the immediate “crisis” of deaths occurring. 

The Departments of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and Public Safety (DPS) have come together to launch an educational awareness effort on teenage vaping (DHSS).

Missouri has had 35 confirmed cases of lung injuries related to vaping and two deaths, as of Nov. 13. Both deaths were adults. 

Nationally, 2,172 cases of lung injuries associated with vaping or the use of e-cigarettes have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with 42 deaths. 

“I think the most important thing is this is a start to a campaign that is hitting the two things that are the most time-sensitive,” Williams told The Missouri Times in an interview. “The first one is teenage vaping because of the alarming increase in the last two years. … The second is this other public health crisis that’s killing people immediately that has arisen.” 

“There is some convergence in both public health [issues]. They are not completely at parallel. We think they will converge.” 

Aside from the educational campaign, Williams said there is room in his department for a broader discussion on how DHSS can better tackle vaping-related issues, including deaths among adults. But like Parson, he predicted legislators will take up the issue of vaping as a whole when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. 

“Clearly success to me would be that this idea that vaping is preferable for teenagers to smoking so … at least they’re not smoking [is dispelled],” Williams said. “We just don’t believe that’s true.”

Enforcing the law

Although it is already illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to purchase or use vaping products, state officials have pointed to an influx of youths across the country, including in Missouri, who are vaping. Parson has said the number of middle and high school students who use these products jumped to nearly 27 percent last year from around 19 percent in 2014. 

DPS has six agents who work full time on enforcement efforts to ensure retailers are complying with state and federal laws, Dottie Taylor, state supervisor of the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, told reporters. 

So far, 83 percent of retailers are following protocol in checking identification so as not to sell these products to someone under 18. 

“We’re confident that through continuing enforcement and merchant education and training we can move the compliance percentage closer to 100 percent,” Taylor said. 

According to state statute, it is illegal for anyone — including a sales clerk — to “sell, provide, or distribute tobacco products” to someone under 18. However, a relative who provides tobacco products (which includes vaping) to a minor on the family property is exempted, according to DPS. 

A person can be fined $25 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense, and $250 for any subsequent violations, a DPS spokesperson said. 

What it means for 2020

Auditor Nicole Galloway, who is running for governor as a Democrat, supports more stringent regulations of vaping products, a campaign spokesperson told The Missouri Times. 

“As a mom of three young boys, the health and wellbeing of Missouri’s kids will be Nicole Galloway’s highest priority as governor. The dramatic rise in Missouri youth using these vaping devices in recent years is very concerning given recent deaths related to e-cigarette use,” spokesman Eric Slusher said. 

“Galloway supports stricter regulation of vaping products, including flavored products and raising the age to purchase these products, while we continue to study the effects.” 

And Republican Rep. Jim Neely — who has mounted a longshot primary challenge to Parson — said he would like to make the month of November “No Vape November.” This would give teenagers the ability to turn in vaping devices at public high schools without punishment. 

Neely also said he plans to pre-file legislation addressing the use of vaping among teenagers in December.