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Can Buying Back E-Cigarettes Help Quash Teen Vaping?

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As communities across the country struggle to combat youth vaping, the city of Salem, Mass., is trying a new approach: it's buying back vape pens and e-cigarettes from teenagers.

It's a page borrowed from gun safety advocates' playbook, who've supported gun buybacks, particularly in violence-scarred communities, to cut down on the number of illegal handguns circulating among the general population.

The Salem program, which started this week, allows teenagers to trade in their vape pens and e-cigarettes at the Teen Center at Salem High School for a $50 gift card to Target, Stop & Shop supermarket, and other local businesses.

To get the gift cards, however, teens must finish four 45-minute sessions in a vaping cessation program. 

The initiative is a partnership between the city of Salem, about 20 miles northeast of Boston, and North Shore Community Health and North Shore Medical Center. It will run for a year.

Last week, Education Week reported on the dozens of school districts that are suing JUUL and other e-cigarette makers, arguing that they have suffered significant harm as a result of an increase in teen vaping. Some of the districts said in court filings that they've had to hire additional staff, add sensors to bathrooms to detect vaping, and develop anti-vaping curriculum to educate students and parents about the possible ill effects of e-cigarette use.

Efforts to combat teen vaping vary from community to community.

In the Boulder Valley school district in Colorado, for example, school officials and parents have taken a public health approach to try to address the issue. 

The district is investing heavily in prevention and education programs for teenagers and their families. It's also worked with parent advocates, Advocates for Clean Teens, or ACT, to lobby the Boulder City Council to pass a series of anti-vaping measures, including banning the sale of flavored vaping products in the city and increasing the age to buy tobacco and nicotine products to 21.

Joelle Rossback-Dahl, a parent of three students in the district and co-founder of Advocates for Clean Teens, said despite those successes, much more needs to be done to help students quit and get help with nicotine addiction.

"When it comes to cigarettes, [kids] think they're awful," Rossback-Dahl said. "They see the black lungs; they know all about that. But vaping, [they think] vaping is cool; it's fun. Half of them don't know there's nicotine in it, despite the district's efforts in health classes."

Rossback-Dahl said feedback from students suggests that the prevention efforts are not enough, and that the health education classes need to start at the elementary school level. Parents also need help finding rehabilitation services for children who are addicted to nicotine. Those services are hard to find and are expensive, she said.

Will a Vaping Buyback Program Work?

The Salem vaping buyback initiative grew from the work of the Salem Youth Commission, which for the last several years has been working on substance abuse education and reduction programs, with an emphasis on vaping, said Laura Assade, the commission's advisor.

Some of the commission's members shared personal testimony with the health board last year and asked the board's members to take steps to address youth vaping, including to limit the number of licenses it grants to retailers to sell tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, within city limits and retire licenses that are not in use currently. They also sought community education workshops on vaping, Assade said.

Hearing about the commission's efforts, Mayor Kim Driscoll suggested the buyback as an additional way to target youth vaping, Assade said.

Assade said she consulted the Youth Commission's members about whether a buyback program could work. The teens said the program could have an impact if paired with an education component.

"This is where the cessation program came in," Assade said.  It's a way to help youths, without penalizing students who are now addicted to nicotine, she said. 

The cessation sessions will be led by the nurse at the Teen Health Center, who also works at North Shore Community Health in Salem.   

Assade hopes that there will also be long-term follow up and support for the teens in addition to the cessation classes they must attend after turning in their devices.

Assade said Wednesday she did not know how many students had turned in their devices, but there was interest before the program started.

Last year, Massachusetts lawmaker Paul Brodeur proposed that e-cigarette makers hold a buyback program of sorts—essentially buying back vaping devices that school districts had confiscated and allow the proceeds to go toward education and prevention programs.

Other industries and government agencies have used buybacks or take backs to reduce illicit activities in the community.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency, for example, holds a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day twice a year to get unused and unwanted prescription drugs off the streets and reduce illegal use—but those turning in unused and expired medications are not paid. (The next one is April 25.)

The DEA collected e-cigarettes at last October's event, which came after several people had died or were hospitalized after sustaining lung injuries. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control later said those cases were most likely linked to Vitamin E acetate.

Image: Disposable vape devices at a store in the Brooklyn, N.Y., January 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Marshall Ritzel)

Related

The Student Vaping Crisis: How Schools Are Fighting Back

School Districts Are Suing JUUL Over Youth Vaping. Do They Stand a Chance?

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