The Other 60 Percent

Health officials wary of dissolvable tobacco

Health officials are manning the school ramparts for a fresh tobacco assault they feel sure is about to happen, if it hasn’t started already.

Colorado is a test market for RJ Reynolds new line of dissolvable tobacco products.

They just can’t prove it.

It was May when the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company introduced its new “dissolvable” products into Colorado as a test market. Those products include Camel Orbs, pellets roughly the size of breath minds; Camel sticks, twisted sticks the size of a toothpick; and Camel strips, similar to breath strips. All are made from finely ground menthol-flavored tobacco and are designed to melt in the mouth.

Tobacco is tobacco, even if it is smokeless, and it’s illegal for vendors to sell the products to minors.

It’s also a violation of the state’s Tobacco-Free Schools Act for students to bring these items onto their campuses. Indeed, as far as state officials know, no Colorado student has yet been caught sneaking a tobacco orb, strip or stick into his or her mouth at school.

But health officials feel it’s just a matter of time, given the allure of the product.

“They only started testing this product in Colorado a few months ago. We haven’t had time to track its usage,” said Bob Doyle, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, a statewide coalition of organizations committed to reducing tobacco use. “But we’re trying to get ahead of this before it happens.”

State Board of Health wants product out of Colorado

Last month, the Colorado Board of Health unanimously approved a resolution calling on RJ Reynolds to stop the test marketing of the candy-like products in the state until the federal Food and Drug Administration decides whether to regulate them or not. The FDA will report to Congress next March the results of its study of the health effects of dissolvable tobacco.

The health board also called on officials from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to alert school officials, parents and young people to the threat posed by the new tobacco products.

Since then, Cherry Creek and Aurora school board members have seen presentations on dissolvable tobacco during the public comment section of their meetings, and information about dissolvables has gone out to health staff and teachers in Steamboat Springs.

In addition, information about dissolvables will be included in the November issue of Thrive, a parent newsletter for Boulder Valley schools.

This is just the beginning, say health officials.

“We can’t say what the timeline might be at this point until we sit down with Department of Education folks,” said Stephanie Walton, Youth Tobacco Specialist in the Prevention Services Division of CDPHE. “Right now, I’m not sure how aware school districts even are about these things.”

Officials struggle to track incidents in schools

Meanwhile, Doyle is urging all schools to provide fact sheets about dissolvable tobacco to staff and parents, and to monitor whether the products have appeared on their campuses. If so, he’d like to know.

“Please pass the information on to me so we can keep track,” he said.

He’s also encouraging parents to sign an online petition calling for the end of the test marketing of these products in Colorado, and he’s asking school boards and other organizations across the state to draft similar resolutions.

Camel sticks, strips and orbs look like candy or breath strip packages. Photo from Tobacco-Free Aurora

Despite the lack of hard evidence that teens are using products that makers say are clearly meant for adults, health officials point to some troubling circumstantial evidence:

There’s brand loyalty, for one thing.

“We have research that shows that youth smokers are very brand loyal,” Walton said. “We know that Camel is one of the most popular brands with teen smokers, so anything marketed under the Camel brand will appeal to young people. We have a study that shows established youth smokers are most likely to smoke the same brand as the first cigarette they tried. So if they’ve tried a Camel, they may be more likely to try these products.”

There’s also the sneakiness factor. These are products that can easily be brought into a classroom, and just as easily be mistaken for mints. And unlike other forms of smokeless tobacco, they won’t have to spit it out afterward.

“I could have 10 of these orbs in my mouth at once, and you wouldn’t know it,” said Doyle. “I could be getting a very large dose of nicotine and you wouldn’t even know it. This really facilitates addiction.”

Flavor and price are two more teen-friendly aspects of the dissolvables. Their mint flavoring makes them more attractive to youngsters. And at a cost of about $2.50 per pack, the price fits more easily into teen-age budgets than a $5 pack of cigarettes.

“Youth are price-sensitive tobacco users, so this is an easier entry point for them,” Walton said.

Finally, there’s product placement. Two other dissolvable tobacco products – Stonewall and Ariva – have been on the market for some time without much furor. That’s because Stonewall is typically sold in tobacco stores, while Ariva is more likely to be sold in drug stores, next to nicotine replacement products.

“But we’re finding Camel Orbs in convenience stores and gas stations, stores where you typically see cigarettes sold,” Walton said.

Makers defend product as intended for adults

Despite all this, tobacco-product manufacturers point out that the products really do fill a niche, that they provide adults with tobacco options that don’t involve second-hand smoke or cigarette butts, that they carry the same warnings as other tobacco products, and that it’s the opponents who repeatedly refer to these products as “candy” who are really causing the problem.

And, as Thomas A. Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, told members of the board of health at an August hearing, the vast majority of tobacco vendors refuse to sell their products to minors.

“From Aug. 30, 2010 to June 20, 2011, 99 percent of 989 Colorado retailers successfully refused the sale of tobacco products in compliance checks conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment,” Briant said. “Only nine out of 989 retailers received a warning letter from the FDA alleging a sale of tobacco products to a minor, and even some of these nine locations were not retail stores.”

Across the state, the rate of smoking among teens has steadily fallen in the last decade. According to the most recent data, the 2008 Healthy Kids Colorado Tobacco and Health Survey, 37 percent of teens reported ever having smoked, down from 54 percent in 2001.

“The trendline is going down, though the decrease has slowed,” Walton said.

The data on smokeless tobacco is less clear. Figures on that form of tobacco use aren’t even available before 2006. According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 17.7 percent of high school students in Colorado identified themselves as smokers, versus 16.8 percent who used smokeless or spit tobacco. Nearly all of the spit tobacco users were, not surprising, male.

The new dissolvable tobacco products aren’t like to gross out girls the way spit tobacco does, health officials predict.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.