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Vaping has emerged as a critical public health concern. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,080 cases this year of severe lung illnesses attributable to vaping, with more than 70 cases reported in Texas. The 23 reported deaths attributable to vaping-related illnesses are likely just the beginning of an increasingly alarming trend.
The news is especially grim as it relates to teens. More than one million high school students started vaping from 2017 to 2018. One-third of the cases of vaping-related illnesses in Texas have been found among teens.
We, as a city, must tackle teen vaping head-on through public service announcements and by exploring fees on electronic cigarette consumption to fund substance abuse prevention.
H-E-B recently discontinued sales of all e-cigarette products in its stores largely because of research that showed the increased use of e-cigarettes by children. Walmart earlier banned the sale of e-cigarettes due to the lack of information about the health risks associated with vaping.
North East Independent School District is taking action with its public education campaign about vaping. Churchill High School is hosting a community forum about teen vaping on Oct. 10. This firm response should serve as a model for a citywide initiative.
San Antonio has long been a statewide leader in addressing public health challenges. The Tobacco 21 ordinance adopted by City Council in 2017 was the model for statewide legislation adopted this year. The Joint Opioid Overdose Prevention Task Force was cited by state leaders as a model for urban interagency collaboration in addressing the opioid crisis.
Now the City needs a robust public health education campaign about the harms of vaping. There is ample precedent for such a campaign. The Truth Initiative was a successful community education campaign that convinced teenagers not to smoke in the 1990s. City staff worked with the San Antonio Council on Alcohol and Drug Awareness to boost public education about the “social host ordinance,” a policy spearheaded by former Councilman Rey Saldaña that criminalized serving alcohol to underage minors in private homes. City Council can lead the public awareness effort by supporting a replication of this model targeting teen vaping.
The City should also explore a tax or fee on e-cigarette sales. Such a tax would have the dual benefit of increasing the cost of consumption – and hopefully reducing demand – and providing a revenue stream that the City could divert to prevention efforts. Despite our ongoing efforts, San Antonio lacks a local revenue stream dedicated to evidence-based substance abuse treatment. Most of this funding comes from state grants. Through a special tax or fee, we could increase capacity and ensure the reliability of our prevention efforts. If the City does not currently possess legal authority to levy a tax or a fee, it should seek authorization in the next legislative session.
Vaping will continue to lure minors into nicotine addiction if active measures aren’t implemented. San Antonio has been the champion of many public health initiatives and we have an opportunity to mitigate this looming issue before it becomes an even bigger crisis.