DeWitt students ‘Ahead of the curve’ on vaping legislation

Lindsay Steele
Brenda McKone and her eighth grade 21st century skills class from St. Joseph Catholic School in DeWitt pose for a picture with one-pagers they wrote in an effort to address the teen vaping epidemic at the state level. A letter to the editor, which the students wrote, has appeared in several Iowa newspapers, including the Quad-City Times.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a string of mysterious lung illnesses and deaths related to vaping. The reports have placed doubts on what has often been thought of as a healthier alternative to cigarettes.

While the dangers of vaping have only recently entered the public consciousness, it’s an issue students from St. Joseph Catholic School in DeWitt have been working on for more than six months, with the support of state legislators.

Vaping involves using an electronic cigarette or other device which delivers nicotine through a vaporized liquid. With the release of the CDC’s reports, the Trump administration expressed an interest in clearing the market of flavored nicotine products, which have become popular among youths.


The topic came up in February at Day on the Hill in Des Moines. Several middle school students from St. Joe’s attended the event alongside public school students from Clinton County. While teachers and students at St. Joe’s say it isn’t an issue in their community, eighth-grader Isabelle Pierce recalled students from other schools talking about how vaping was becoming a problem. “They were saying it’s everywhere. They can hide it in class because it is handheld and there is no scent.” The flavors, which often mimic fruit juice, candy and baked goods, “attract our age group,” said eighth-grader Kari Casel.

The Clinton County students expressed their concern with legislators, backing up their testimonies with facts. According to the Iowa Youth Survey in 2016, 3% of eighth-graders used e-cigarettes. By 2018, their use went up to 8%.  A bigger concern was among the 11th-grade students. In 2016, 9% were vaping. By 2018, that number rose to 23%. Legislators took interest, and the eighth-grade class at St. Joe’s has offered input and worked to raise awareness for a bill that could decrease vaping use among underage individuals.

The bill would aim to curb usage by raising the age requirement for purchase from 18 years old to 21 years old, putting restrictions on flavors, establishing a tax on vaping products similar to that of traditional nicotine products and requiring identification for online purchases. “It’s so easy to get online and buy it,” Isabelle said.

Eighth-grader Brady Freeman has researched the health implications of vaping and said some of the brain changes associated with nicotine use are permanent “and can affect your mood and ability to control your impulses as an adult.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), state and local health departments and other clinical and public health partners are currently investigating a multistate outbreak of lung disease associated with vaping. According to the CDC website, 380 cases of lung illnesses have been reported from 36 states and one U.S. territory. Six deaths have been reported. The specific cause of these illnesses is not yet known; the investigation has not identified any specific e-cigarette or vaping product or substance that is linked to all cases.

Last month, the students sent a letter to the editor to 14 newspapers in Iowa, including the 10 newspapers with the largest circulation. The Quad-City Times printed the letter the next day and later that week the Davenport-based newspaper wrote an editorial about vaping. “That was pretty cool,” said the students’ 21st century skills teacher, Brenda McKone, who works with the students on the vaping initiative. Several other newspapers have also printed the letter, she said.

Currently, the students are writing one-page reports which legislators may use to promote a vaping bill. The students say that working on this issue has been educational in many ways. They have learned how the legislative process works and increased their confidence in their writing and persuasive speaking skills. They have also discovered how legislation and Catholic values can go hand-in-hand. Isabelle said, “In religious education we are learning about dignity and the common good. This is a common good.”

The students believe that the research they’ve done will help them to make healthy decisions in the future when it comes to vaping and nicotine products. Brady said, “I’ve got to shy away from this stuff. It’s going to be around me a ton, and I just have to say no.” Isabelle said the flavors appealed to her. “It seemed cool, and people said it was healthy. Now I know it is not what it looks like. When we dug deeper, it opened my eyes a lot.”

National attention on vaping should help give the bill more traction. At least, that’s what the students hope. “I was happy we got a head start,” Isabelle said.

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