By Zachary Horner, Chatham News + Record Staff
Chatham County and its governments have been investing time and effort into anti-smoking initiatives in recent months, with the county and the Town of Siler City banning tobacco use on government property.
The United States has followed suit. It is now illegal for stores to sell tobacco products to anyone under age 21 and for companies to produce, distribute and sell several flavors of cartridge-based e-cigarettes.
Chatham County public health officials say the moves are positive and will hopefully cut down on tobacco use, but only scratch at the surface of the issue.
While raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 on Jan. 1 was “a positive thing” to county Health Director Layton Long, he said it was “probably the least impactful thing that could be done.”
“There was so much news around the e-cigarettes and the youth rates, I think the politicians and the industry felt they had to do something,” Long said. “So this was done. Don’t get me wrong, it’s positive, but it’s probably the least impactful thing in terms of their sales that could have been done to address the public outcry.”
Ninety percent of smokers begin using tobacco products prior to age 18, the former legal sales age. In Chatham County, nearly 14 percent of high schoolers reported “currently” smoking cigarettes, compared to 8.9 percent of North Carolina high school students.
Long said something additional that could help cut down on youth use in particular and use in general is raising the excise tax on tobacco products. Currently, North Carolina charges 45 cents per pack, which ranks 47th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The national average is $1.81 per park. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “every 10 percent increase in cigarette prices reduces youth smoking by about seven percent and total cigarette consumption by about four percent.”
“Raising the taxes on tobacco is a major deterrent in other states from youth beginning,” Long said. “So that’s something that I’d like to see worked on at the state level to see if they can raise that.”
Anna Stormzand, a public health educator with the Chatham County Public Health Department, said the elimination of fruit and mint flavors in e-cigarette and vapor products is positive because “flavors are what capture kids, especially the younger ones,” but the continued allowance of menthol flavors in particular and a particular loophole in the new policy restrict the effectiveness of the rule.
“Menthol is our main concern,” Stormzand said. “Menthol actually opens the airwaves. If you think about when you were a kid and you used to put the vapor rub on, it opens your airwaves and it makes it more addictive. We’ve been pushing in the public health community for years to get menthol removed. They haven’t.”
Additionally, the new e-cigarette rule does not ban flavored vapor liquid for disposable products, creating a loophole teens are already exploiting, according to a Jan. 31 report from The New York Times. Multiple school officials across America said in the NYT report that they’re seeing students continue to use flavored vapes despite the new rule.
The 2018 CCCA reported that nearly half of Chatham high school students reported ever using electronic vapor products, and 22.4 percent reported current use. That’s higher than the North Carolina high school current use of e-cigarettes, at 16.9 percent, and high school students in the U.S., at 13.2 percent.
In the meantime, county public health officials will continue advocating for tobacco cessation classes and working with the public school system on anti-tobacco and tobacco quitting initiatives.
“It is the No. 1 cause of premature death and disease in the United States,” Long said. “As a health department, we can’t ignore it. It’s preventable, it disproportionately affects minority communities and low-income communities because they have much higher utilization rates.”
The county has two upcoming QuitSmart classes, which focus on tobacco use cessation.
“Effective cessation is absolutely critical,” Stormzand said. “We don’t want to just say, ‘We don’t want you smoking,’ because that’s not effective.”
Those interested can contact Debbie Scotten with Chatham Hospital at 919-799-4652 to register for the March program, or Stormzand at 919-545-8455 or firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the May program. Residents can also visit chathamnc.org/tobaccocessation for additional resources in the area orchathamnc.org/ecigaretteinfo for more information on electronic cigarettes or vaping products.
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