Heidi Driscoll, South Kingstown Partnership for Prevention
Dave Neill, US Attorney’s Office Rhode Island District
In this interview, Heidi Driscoll and Dave Neill discuss electronic cigarettes and the public prevention work by the South Kingstown Partnership for Prevention to educate the community about their dangers.
Tell me a little about the South Kingstown Partnership for Prevention and what the coalition is focusing on?
Heidi: The coalition has been in existence since 1987 and we operate under two different grants from the RI Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals (BHDDH): the Rhode Island Substance Abuse Prevention Act (RISAPA) and the Reducing Marijuana and Other Drugs Initiative. Our primary focus is reducing use of marijuana and other drugs in grades 9-12. We have a fantastic coalition with about 25 people. Dave Neill joined us in the Fall and it’s great to have someone from the US Attorney’s Office in the coalition.
Dave: The US Attorney’s Office District of Rhode Island, under Peter Neronha, is looking at how we can get out in the community and be involved in a drug awareness—especially with e-cigarettes and vaporizers. I’m incredibly impressed with the work that Heidi does with the coalition. I think the most important part of what they are doing is public education of parents, teachers, and students. Heidi has also facilitated the US Attorney’s Office meeting with other coalitions and visiting middle schools and high schools around the state to make educational presentations.
Can you give a little background on electronic cigarettes?
Heidi: We are seeing an increase in kids not only using electronic cigarettes, but also using the vaporizers for other drugs like marijuana. Tobacco use is on the decline but kids don’t see the harm in using nicotine products like electronic cigarettes. Most parents and teachers can’t identify what these devices look like. For this reason, we started focusing our attention on doing presentations to faculty and parents on what to look for. With electronic cigarettes, you aren’t going to see the traditional puff of smoke. And you aren’t going to smell the kid who is using the device to get high on marijuana.
Dave: These were originally developed by the tobacco companies to make a healthier version of smoking—nicotine without the smoke. But now, when you look at the ‘juices’ being developed for these nicotine devices, there is every kind of flavor you could possibly imagine—from gummy bear to chocolate to bubblegum. It is apparent that these are being marketed, not only to adults, but also to teenagers who falsely believe that it is a healthier alternative.
What are the main misconceptions about e-cigs? Why should communities be concerned?
Heidi: A big misconception is that nicotine is a safer alternative and it really isn’t—especially in a developing brain. It’s as dangerous as tobacco and just as addictive.
Dave: The biggest misconception is definitely the belief that they are safe. The reality is nicotine is highly addictive. It affects the brain and the cardiovascular system.
What is your coalition doing on a local level to promote electronic cigarette prevention?
Heidi: We a focusing primarily on public education. Dave and I have done numerous programs for middle schools, high schools, PTOs, and other coalitions. We also developed a toolkit of different vaporizers, nicotine and tobacco products, that the teachers and faculty could put their hands on. A lot of them look like pens and can be easily disguised and hidden in sleeves and backpacks. It is really amazing that when you talk to people they will often say, ‘I just saw someone using this and had no idea what they were doing.’ I’m glad that we can educate the community about the dangers of electronic cigarettes and allow parents and faculty members to see and hold these devices.
Dave: I agree. Outreach and education is very important. Different groups really want to know what these devices are and how they are being used. Towns have also been working on a local level to pass ordinances to restrict the sale and use of electronic cigarettes and tobacco products. Getting the word out that these products are dangerous will continue to require a great deal of collaboration between the coalitions, the RI Department of Health, and our office—the US Attorney’s Office.
What are the biggest challenges facing communities and states in regards to electronic cigarettes?
Heidi: We constantly feel that we are five steps behind the big tobacco companies. We come up with an ordinance and they have already changed the packaging to get around it. For example, we were looking at an ordinance to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products. Now, instead of the packaging having the actual flavor name on it, like “grape” tobacco, it will read “purple haze,” which is not technically a flavor. These companies are clever. And they know how to market to kids. There aren’t many adults who are going to purchase bubblegum nicotine oil to use in their vaporizer.
Dave: And with the E-Cigs, the liquid doesn’t contain any tobacco products. It only contains nicotine and flavor. So it can avoid different tobacco related laws. Furthermore, kids used to go out and smoke tobacco and marijuana and the odor would get on their clothes and be detectable by parents. How are you going to catch your child if you can’t smell the smoke or recognize the nicotine product? This is why educating community members on what they look like is so important.
Has Rhode Island had any major successes related to electronic cigarettes?
Heidi: Throughout this year, a number of school systems are adding the nicotine delivery system into their school policies. The RI Department of Health and Tobacco Free Rhode Island have really helped people to realize that school policies need to change.
Dave: At the state level, they have also changed the language for tobacco products to include the electronic cigarettes—and now someone younger than 18 can’t buy or possess the devices. The RI Department of Health is also encouraging towns to produce their own ordinances that restrict the sale of these items. I think Rhode Island is taking the right steps.test