Brooklyn Boro

Would keeping e-cigs farther from schools curb vaping? Teachers say probably not.

August 2, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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As more and more teens take up vaping, a City Council member is hoping to crack down on the sale of non-tobacco smoking products near New York City schools.

If passed, the bill, which was introduced in the City Council on July 23 by Councilmember Robert Holden, would prohibit retailers that sell smoking paraphernalia from operating within 500 feet of any public or private school — a distance a bit shorter than the average city block.

Under the legislation, restricted inventory would include water pipes, rolling papers and electronic cigarette components.

As Brooklyn teachers see it, however, an extra 500 feet won’t do much to keep kids from buying new cartridges for their Juuls — a popular e-cigarette that’s shaped like a USB flash drive — or other types of e-cigarettes.

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“I don’t think the proximity makes much of a difference. I’m sure if students have to walk a little farther out of their way, they’re going to do it,” said one southern Brooklyn high school teacher who works in District 20 (a school zone where the superintendent, Karina Costantino, has been vocal about the danger of vaping).

Despite his school’s remote location (it is at least a few avenues away from the nearest storefront), the teacher said that vaping has been a real problem in his halls. “Maybe the bill will make it slightly more inconvenient for students — or maybe less tempting if there isn’t a place for them to buy vapes on their way from the train or bus stop,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle, “but I’m doubtful it will solve or significantly reduce the problem.”

More than one in six New York City high school students (17.3 percent) reported using e-cigarettes in 2017, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Meanwhile, only 2.5 percent of adults across the five boroughs said they smoked e-cigarettes that year.

To boot, only 5 percent of high-schoolers smoked traditional cigarettes. That means that in 2017, e-cigarette use was more than three times as common among high school students as actual tobacco.

According to Dr. Michael Blaha, director of clinical research at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at Johns Hopkins, vaping is arguably less harmful than traditional smoking, but it’s still bad for your health — and just as addicting. While they don’t contain tobacco, e-cigarettes contain other (primarily unknown) chemicals — oftentimes flavorings — and almost always contain nicotine.

“E-cigarettes are highly addictive, and we are seeing more and more young people use them despite being underage,” Holden, the bill’s sponsor, told the Eagle. “These products can alter the development of a teenager’s brain and have serious side effects just like cigarettes can. Smoking e-cigarettes is a terrible habit to start at a young age and I believe this bill will help cut back on underage use.”

“It should go without saying that vaping should not be allowed in school,” Joanna Alonso, a District 22 high school teacher, told the Eagle. “It’s a distraction and allowing [students] to form a habit. It’s also a danger to their health and those around them.”

While she thinks the bill could be a good start, Alonso would like to see legislation go even further. “Half of the students in my building aren’t even of age to buy cigarettes, so why is this any different?” she said.

Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo green-lighted raising the smoking age in New York from 18 to 21. By mid-November, the new law will apply to sales of traditional tobacco products, as well as e-cigarettes and vapes.

Still, educators worry, kids will find a way.

According to Holden’s bill, the new 500-foot rule would only apply to retailers seeking a new license to sell the products — but any existing shop that fails to renew its license on time would also be banned from selling such items.

From here, the bill heads to the Council’s Health Committee, where it will be heard as part of a package of other e-cigarette-related bills.

The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction (1:45 p.m.): This article has been updated to reflect that Juul does not come in “kid-friendly flavors,” as previously reported. Juul does still manufacture four flavored “pods,” but no longer ships them to traditional retailers. They are currently only available online.

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  1. Ro from Park Slope

    Just a footnote: local community school districts (20 & 22 were named) have limited involvement with the high schools. They focus on Kindergarten through Grade 8 life.

  2. Alyce Wittenstein

    I understand the frustration of the educators that believe that prohibiting sales within 500 feet will not make a dent in the problem, but as a lawyer I know that the law will be helpful at “chipping away” at the “rights” of vape store owners. Start with 500 feet, easier to pass, then next year it can be two blocks, then 5 blocks, then maybe the business won’t be so attractive.