SALT LAKE CITY — As his 42-year career in the United States Senate enters its final weeks, Sen. Orrin Hatch is not done pursuing new legislation.
Hatch, R-Utah, this month introduced the Smoke Free Schools Act of 2018, a measure that instructs the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to partner to "study best practices for schools to implement policies to address e-cigarette use among students," the seven-term senator's office said.
The agencies would likewise be instructed to study "gaps in knowledge about the harms of e-cigarette use among youth and young adults," Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock explained.
"The bill also encourages further research on the dose-response association between e-cigarettes and combustible tobacco, and the current efforts by schools to use federal funding to combat e-cigarette use," Whitlock said.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced the bill in conjunction with Hatch. The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National School Boards Association, a pair of education advocacy organizations, have each issued statements supporting the bill.
"Congress, the FDA, and the Department of Education have made great strides in the past 30 years to discourage teen smoking and nicotine use. Now, it’s important to continue that work in the context of new devices and technologies that have been shown to lead to nicotine addiction among today’s students,” Hatch said in a statement.
A state-administered survey of Utah youth in eighth grade, 10th grade and 12th grade, carried out in 2017, found that 23.1 percent of respondents reported they had tried an electronic cigarette — slightly higher than the proportion who said they had ever consumed alcohol. Among seniors only, 32.1 percent said they had tried one. The legal age to use an e-cigarette in Utah is 19.
Prominent research hospital Mayo Clinic says that while "most experts agree that they're likely to cause fewer harmful effects than traditional cigarettes," there is "no scientific evidence that using e-cigarettes is safe" in general. The organization also says "research on e-cigarettes as a stop-smoking aid is inconclusive."
The Food and Drug Administration also announced last month that it would be restricting the sale of e-cigarettes with flavors besides that of mint and menthol at traditional retail locations, as part of an effort to reduce their appeal to minors.
Whitlock said e-cigarette use in schools is not only unhealthy for the teenager doing so, but is also "distracting for other students, difficult for teachers to detect, and results in a less healthy school environment."
Udall said in a statement that he is backing the bill because e-cigarette use among teenagers has "reached truly alarming proportions" and American youth "deserve to be protected from a lifetime of nicotine addiction."
Hatch is also trying to help put the finishing touches on upgrades to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that are being made at the behest of his bill that was passed into law in August.
The bill, called the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, called on the Federal Communications Commission to examine the establishment of a three-digit number for Americans in crisis to call. Currently, that phone number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Hatch on Monday wrote a letter to the FCC, submitting it as part of the agency's public comment period as it considers how to implement the law — recommending that the sequence 611 be selected for the three digit hotline.
Hatch said in his letter that 611 and 411 are the only numbers ending in 11 that "have not been officially designated by the FCC for a particular use."
"Currently, 411 is in widespread use for directory assistance. It is estimated that this number is used billions of times annually, making it impractical to use the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline," he wrote.
Hatch said he pursued the bill because he believes that by making the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline more user-friendly and accessible, "we can save thousands of lives by helping people find the help they need when they need it most."
"This undertaking is of utmost national importance and has the ability to help connect millions of Americans, including veterans that find themselves in crisis, with life-saving resources," the senator wrote.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who was House sponsor of Hatch's suicide hotline bill, also signed the letter.