Kentucky Teens Speaking Up to End Youth Vaping Epidemic

Every child deserves to grow into a healthy adult. While youth cigarette smoking has declined in Kentucky, e-cigarette usage among children and teens surged from 2016 to 2018. Kentucky can end the epidemic of e-cigarette use among youth by enacting a tax on e-cigarettes, prohibiting tobacco sales to anyone under age 21, and strengthening state investment in tobacco use prevention and cessation programming.

This week, Kentucky Youth Advocates joined our many partners in the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow for a rally in Frankfort to urge state lawmakers to adopt several measures that will reduce vaping and other tobacco use among children and teens. Ana Pohlgeers, a high school senior from Northern Kentucky and Tobacco-Free Youth Ambassador, shared her perspective on the e-cigarette epidemic and how best to combat this growing problem:

While I am the proud granddaughter of a Kentucky tobacco farmer, I see that we are at a critical crossroads with tobacco usage among one of our most vulnerable populations in our state – that is, our youth. It is no secret that teens like me are targeted by the makers of electronic cigarettes on a regular basis. These industry giants hold youth-oriented events, advertise all over social media and even create e-cigarettes with flavors that appeal to young children and teenagers. We need your help in protecting Kentucky’s youth to ensure that our children and teens can grow into healthier adults.

Ana Pohlgeers and Senator Schroder

I’m not surprised that recent studies demonstrate that while youth cigarette smoking has declined in Kentucky, e-cigarette usage among children and teens surged from 2016 to 2018. I am very active in my school with sports, clubs and volunteer work. Almost daily I witness numerous peers using e-cigarettes. When I ask my peers why they would consider ever using an e-cigarette I hear things like, “They are better than cigarettes for me!” or “They are easy to get so why not?” or “Duh – because they are COOL!” It is time for a solution to nix this deadly habit that is overtaking the youth of Kentucky.

In 2018, the Kentucky General Assembly increased the tax on cigarettes and enacted a tax on tobacco products. Unfortunately, e-cigarettes were not included in this tax. I call upon legislators to enact a tax on e-cigarettes equal to the current tax on other tobacco products. In doing so, we will be taking great strides toward preventing e-cigarette usage among youth. Most kids my age have very little cash flow. Even though I work two jobs, I would have a hard time finding the extra money to purchase e-cigarettes, especially if a tax was added. Adding the e-cigarette tax is a no brainer – you can’t purchase what you can’t afford!

Currently, I work as a high school intern at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Northern Kentucky. Sadly, each day I see people who are negatively impacted by the use of tobacco products. I witness people riddled with lung cancer and destroyed by heart disease on a regular basis and often wonder how this could be avoided. The solution is very clear to me – we should tax e-cigarettes equivalent to the current tax on cigarettes. This one small step will impact the lives of MANY!

This week we are also celebrating a first step win for a Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priority – raising the minimum legal sale age of tobacco from 18 to 21 years old. In the midst of the youth vaping epidemic in Kentucky and on the heels of recent federal changes to combat it nationally, Senate Bill 56, sponsored by state Senator Ralph Alvarado, seeks to codify in state law raising the legal sale age of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. This measure unanimously passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on January 15th upon hearing testimony from Bonnie Hackbarth of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and Kendall Tubbs, a high school senior from Graves County and Tobacco-Free Youth Ambassador. Kendall shared his perspective on the impact raising the legal sale of tobacco products could have on his peers across the Commonwealth:

Coming from a small town in Western Kentucky, I’m here today to discuss my concerns for the future of Kentucky students. Who would have thought something so small [e-cigarettes] could cause such irrevocable harm to our health: truly an epidemic amongst our state’s student body.

Kendall Tubbs and Senator Alvarado

In schools everyone knows who have [e-cigarette] pods, and I call them “pod dealers.” They are students who are able to buy pods or who have access to those who do, and they sell to younger students, even middle schoolers. I’m 18 and I don’t hang out with 21-year-olds, so I know my brother who is in middle school doesn’t either. Raising the legal sale age would be essential to my family in shielding us from the influence of e-cigarettes and I know it would help public health across the state.

The statistics back Senate Bill 56. One out of four high schoolers use e-cigarettes, one out of five middle schoolers use, and I would like to point out that 95% of people who smoke started before the age of 21. This bill is absolutely necessary. I actually bought this Juul underage. Our county does compliance checks on retailers in order to enforce carding. It helps to educate retailers, though it’s not enough. This bill is necessary for making tremendous strides in public health. It can help ensure a healthy student body, a healthy workforce, and a healthier Kentucky.

Learn more about this Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priority in this infographic and stay up-to-date on Senate Bill 56 and other bills that are good for kids on our Bill Tracker.

Kendall Tubbs, Bonnie Hackbarth, and Senator Alvarado testifying on SB 56 before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee

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