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.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”