By Denise Ramirez, MLN communications manager

Utah recently moved forward with a new law that sponsors hope will establish more extensive social and educational initiatives to combat e-cigarette use, or vaping, in teens. The recently passed bill, HB58, added e-cigarettes to the list of prohibited substances in all Utah schools, and now requires drinking and substance abuse prevention programs to begin as early as fourth grade. Additionally, the bill calls for each school to create a “positive behaviors plan” and appoint a positive behaviors specialist to teach students the skills they need to avoid substance abuse, including vaping. I spoke with bill sponsor and State Representative Susan Pulsipher to get more information about what the positive behaviors plan entails as well as what she hopes to come of the bill.  

Utah State Rep. Susan Pulsipher

Rep. Pulsipher is confident that the new regulations established by HB58 will help make a difference. “E-cigarette and vaping among students is increasing at an alarming rate. We are excited about this bill because it will not only inform teens about the harmful effects of vaping but it will also give students the skills they need to refuse to start,” stated Rep. Pulsipher. 

She pointed to a lack of connectedness and social skills, or “positive behaviors,” as the main reason why minors use e-cigarettes and other addictive substances. She hopes that putting a program in place that teaches these positive behaviors will give students other alternatives for interacting with their peers.

We highly encourage all Utah schools to consider including including media literacy skills when crafting their individual schools’ positive behaviors plan. Media literacy education has been shown to be more effective in combating smoking in teens than health fact-based programs (which are also effective) or punishment, and marketing tactics that push e-cigs for young people have been similar to traditional smoking tactics.

Teaching media literacy skills also has the benefit of having a lasting impact in addressing behaviors beyond substance abuse. “Media literacy can help as a preventative skill to sift through media messages and social messages about risky behaviors. Media literacy stands to benefit youth in all aspects of their life,” explains Michelle Linford, the executive director of Utah-based media literacy advocacy organization Epik Deliberate Digital. As outlined in Epik’s 2017 report about the role of digital citizenship in prevention science, research has shown that media literacy education can “reduce risky or antisocial behaviors, increase negative beliefs and negative attitudes toward such behaviors, and increase belief in oneself to avoid negative behaviors.” This has proven to be true for children of all ages as well as over a range of topics from substance abuse to violence to sex.  

The new regulations established by HB58 are meant to address e-cigarette use in teens. | Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash

The language of HB58 was specifically designed so that each plan can be locally driven. Rep. Pulsipher believes educators and parents are more likely “to get behind something that [they] feel is right for [their] students.” Additionally, the bill allots over $5 million to be distributed to Utah schools to put these programs in place.

Teen positive health behavior must includes taking a critical view of marketing. We urge Utah school leaders to develop media literacy lessons and training as part of their positive behaviors plan. For more concrete tools on how Utah educators can include media literacy as part of their positive behaviors plan, visit Epik’s resources library or contact Michelle Linford at Michelle@epik.org. Ultimately, media literacy needs to be a key component of any plan that aims to effectively curb juvenile e-cigarette use.