Joan Woodward

Joan Woodward (left), the Falmouth public school district's interim director of student services, speaks to the Falmouth school committee and board of selectmen about the dangers of vaping.

Many Falmouth parents have voiced concerns about the growing number of children and teens who are vaping or using electronic cigarettes, and they are looking to the schools for assistance in curbing this problem, Falmouth Public Schools superintendent Lori S. Duerr said during a special joint meeting of the Falmouth School Committee and Board of Selectmen Tuesday, March 5.

In response to those concerns, Joan M. Woodward, the school district’s interim director of student services, said the school district is working with several community agencies to address the vaping problem “that has led to nicotine addiction among many of our youth.”

These agencies include the Falmouth Police Department, the Cape Cod Regional Tobacco Control Program, Cape Cod Healthcare, Gosnold on Cape Cod, the Barnstable County Human Services Regional Substance Use Council, the Falmouth Human Services department, the Mashpee Public Schools, the Seven Hills Foundation’s Southeast Tobacco-Free Community Partnership, the Community Health Center of Cape Cod and the Falmouth Board of Health.

Dr. Jeffrey J. Spillane, chairman of the Cape Cod Hospital multidisciplinary thoracic oncology clinic, will present about the health risks of vaping and e-cigarettes in three free community forums: March 11 at Morse Pond School, March 19 at Lawrence School and April 1 at Falmouth High School. Each forum begins at 6:30 PM.

The other speakers will be Morissa Vital, program manager from the Seven Hills Foundation’s Southeast Tobacco-Free Community Partnership, and Cheryl Boli, nursing coordinator for the Falmouth Public Schools.

“Per the Barnstable Count Department of Health and Environment, the US Surgeon General has issued an advisory describing that the use of e-cigarettes by youth has hit the level of an epidemic,” Dr. Woodward said. “In 2018, more than 3.6 million people in the United States, including one in five high-school students and one in 20 middle-school students, are currently using e-cigarette-type devices.”

The Falmouth schools are seeing an increase in the use of vapes and e-cigarettes among students, especially at Falmouth High School, she said.

“In speaking with [Falmouth High School] Principal [Mary W.] Gans, it’s evidenced through some of the behaviors and activities in the bathrooms, and discipline referrals, and also school nurses in the area have reported that students as young as 5th grade are coming into the nurse’s office with the effects from being sick with nicotine in their systems,” Dr. Woodward said.

The tobacco industry is targeting youth in their marketing “and are providing access to nicotine-related products faster than we can keep up,” she said.

To disguise these devices, the tobacco industry has created and sold such “seemingly innocuous” products as “nicotine toothpicks” and hooded sweatshirts with strings that are actually vaping devices, she said.

Julie Williams-Tinkham, the school district’s director of physical education, health and wellness, is considering curriculum revisions to address vaping in grades 7 to 12 as well as adding vaping-related curriculum to health classes in grades 5 and 6. She is exploring age-appropriate options for kindergarten through grade 4, Dr. Woodward said.

Ms. Williams-Tinkham is also looking to incorporate elements of the CATCH Global Foundation’s “CATCH My Breath” program into lesson plans at Falmouth High School.

The program aims to help students build knowledge and skills to resist media influences and peer pressure to try e-cigarettes, according to the organization’s website. It was designed to be delivered by teachers, nurses, or school counselors in the area of health, tobacco education, physical education or science.

“A lot of it is parents just aren’t even familiar because it’s sort of an up-and-coming phenomenon, and there are so many different forms [of e-cigarettes],” selectmen chairman Susan L. Moran said following Dr. Woodward’s presentation. “All of the progress that took years to make in terms of smoking, it’s now stumbled because of this heightened risk—the attractive packaging, the coolness factor—so it’s really commendable that you’re taking this on and getting the education out there.”

School committee vice chairman Kelly A. Welch asked if there might be a vaping component added to the “Hidden in Plain Sight” program that the Falmouth Police Department has brought to the town in the form of a mobile trailer in recent years.

“Hidden in Plain Sight” is an interactive education program for parents and guardians featuring an exhibit where adults are encouraged to explore a display designed to resemble a teenager’s bedroom. The bedroom is designed to test parental knowledge of which common household objects could be signs of high-risk behavior such as substance abuse, underage drinking, eating disorders and sexual activity.

Dr. Duerr said that as soon as the “Hidden in Plain Sight” program is ready to return to Falmouth, they will address parents’ concerns about vaping.

Dr. Woodward added that the e-cigarette products that are available to purchase online, most of which are unregulated, are “coming at the children fast and furiously.”

While long-term, longitudinal studies about the health effects from vaping are not yet available, she said that building awareness is the district’s immediate priority.

“I think people and parents feel as though it’s not smoking, or it’s not the equivalent of doing some drugs, but what it is doing—the amount of nicotine that is in one of the little pods, if you will, is significantly higher than what’s in cigarettes,” she said.

One identified health risk is called “popcorn lung,” or bronchiolitis obliterans, which is a type of noncancerous lung disease that has been linked to e-cigarette use.

School committee member Andrea L. Thorrold suggested that the two boards might work with state legislators as advocates “to stop those devices from being able to be marketed and sold.”

Selectman Megan E. English Braga said that the town should also continue working closely with local vendors who sell vapes and e-cigarettes to keep the devices out of children’s hands as well as sharing information about where children are buying the products online.

“There are restrictions around items that are age-appropriate, and I think this is a place where there’s probably more legislation coming, if there’s appropriate advocacy, because it is somewhat ambiguous. It’s an industry that hasn’t been regulated appropriately yet,” Ms. English Braga said.

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