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.

#WontBeErased

Denver school board pledges to make sure LGBTQ students are ‘seen, accepted, and celebrated’

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Ellie Ozbayrak, 4, sports rainbow wings at the annual PrideFest celebration at Civic Center Park June 18, 2016.

In response to reports that the Trump administration may seek to narrowly define gender as a condition determined by genitalia at birth, the Denver school board Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution in support of transgender students and staff members.

“The board, with its community members and partners, find this federal action to be cruel and harmful to our students and employees,” the resolution said. Denver Public Schools “will not allow our students, staff, and families to feel that they are being erased.”

The Trump administration has not yet made a final decision. But the threat of reversing actions taken under the Obama administration to recognize transgender Americans has prompted protests across the country, including a recent walkout at Denver’s North High School.

Several Denver students thanked the school board Thursday for the resolution, which says the board “wholeheartedly embraces DPS’s LGBTQ+ students, employees, and community members for the diversity they bring to our schools and workplaces, and strives to ensure that they are seen, accepted, and celebrated for who they truly are.”

“It is amazing to hear each and every single one of your ‘ayes,’” said a student named Skyler.

The resolution lists several ways the district supports transgender students and staff, including not requiring them “to undertake any expensive formal legal process to change their names in DPS student or personnel records” and honoring their pronoun preferences.

Read the entire resolution below.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting.