CLEARWATER — Electronic cigarettes are gaining admittance to places that ban other types of smoking, including businesses, bars and restaurants; but Pinellas County school leaders want to keep them — and their potentially harmful side effects — off school grounds and away from students.
Tuesday, School Board members will discuss including e-cigarettes and similar devices into existing policies that prohibit tobacco and nicotine use on school property and at school-sponsored events.
The issue came to light during a recent expulsion hearing for an 18-year-old high school student who smoked an e-cigarette at school. The student ended up being expelled for unrelated reasons, but School Board members began to question their stance on the new products. The school district also began receiving calls about school policies on the devices as they became more popular, said Mary Beth Corace, Pinellas County Schools’ director of strategic planning and policy. Most Florida school districts have banned e-cigarettes or are in the process of doing so, and policymakers across the country have advised schools to ban them, Corace said.
The decision not only protects student health, as e-cigarettes still release nicotine into the air, but also helps administrators keep better track of students during the school day and ensures students aren’t simply using them to get around smoking bans, Corace said.
“Administrators have to watch students at all times of the day, and to have these devices on school grounds that are barely distinguishable from real cigarettes or may or may not contain nicotine makes that difficult, especially in large high school settings,” Corace said. “These really are tobacco-using products; the only difference is that they aren’t lit.”
Federal law prohibits smoking in any kindergarten, elementary or secondary school, and Florida law adds chewing or ingesting tobacco in any way to the list. The ban also extends to all owned, rented or leased school facilities and vehicles and to school events, such as dances and football games, whether or not they happen on school grounds.
Though e-cigarettes are more commonly used to help smokers kick the habit, the battery-powered devices contain a nicotine solution and atomizer that allows users to inhale and exhale a vapor that, just like a regular cigarette, could expose students to second-hand smoke. Not only do e-cigarettes look like the real thing, with some manufacturers putting a red light at the end to simulate burning paper, but most also give users a rush of nicotine.
The design is meant to simulate the entire experience of smoking, from holding a cigarette to breathing out vapor, but that also makes it distracting and not conducive to a healthy learning environment, said School Board member Robin Wikle.
“I guess it’s the mom in me that thinks that if they’re using e-cigarettes they must be trying to stop smoking, and that’s a very positive thing; but as a rule-setting School Board member, I know we can’t make any exceptions for anything tobacco-related on school property,” Wikle said. “We have to send clear and consistent messages on what’s acceptable and what’s not, so I would support this policy,”
Wikle said she did not know whether Nicorette patches, gum and other products that release small amounts of nicotine to help people quit smoking would also fall under the ban. It would be extremely difficult to recognize if a student was wearing a Band-Aid-like patch, let alone why, she said.
As long as those products are being used as intended and don’t pose any risks to others, such as second-hand smoke, the school district wouldn’t ban aids that are “truly a support to individuals trying to stop smoking,” Corace said.
Time is allotted for the public to address this and other issues at the School Board meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the School Administration Building, 301 Fourth St. S.W. in Largo.