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Lowell Students Get a Lesson in Taking Action

May 3, 2019

LOWELL -- When they scroll through Instagram or open Snapchat they see the ads.

But these particular eighth-graders aren’t interested.

The students are part of a class at Pyne Arts Magnet School, which spent months on research and outreach to file a bill limiting the sale of flavored vaping products statewide to adult-only stores.

With the help of state Rep. David Nangle, D-Lowell, legislation based on this goal hit Beacon Hill late last month.

“It’s kind of surreal,” said Alexia Santos, an eighth-grader and Lowell resident. “That’s when it hit. We actually realized we were at the forefront of this and we were the ones who contacted all these officials.”

Her classmate, Ava Sullivan chimed in. They sat a at table in the middle school surrounded by several other classmates last week, a tri-fold poster board stating their case in the background.

“A group of 13- or 14-year-olds actually did something that could potentially in the future create something way bigger for our state or area,” Sullivan said.

The project has its roots in Generation Citizen, an organization geared at engaging youth in civics. Social Studies teacher Mike Neagle brought the pilot program to Pyne Arts Magnet School three years ago. It has since expanded to all the district’s middle schools and Lowell High School.

“I always say you guys are not the next generation,” he said. “You’re the now generation.”

Neagle said this project started last semester with a discussion on substance use. Later, every student brought a topic proposal for a project and voted. The class was one of two at the middle school to chose vaping, a practice they feel particularly affects teens and schools.

“We decided on we wanted to limit flavored vaping products to adults only establishments,” said Madison Scott, an eighth-grader. “I think it was pretty unanimous on our decision.”

From 2011 to 2017, vaping use among high school students jumped from 1.5 percent to 11.7 percent, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The students say they see vape products advertised on social media. Many of the thousands of flavors available are sweet with recognizable images like cartoon characters, the students said.

“The companies say that they don’t try to advertise for kids, but when they put out products like that...” eighth grader Madison Scott said, while other students chimed in with examples of flavors or packaging

Nichollas Fusco said he saw one ad with the tagline “Gotta Vape Them All,” a play on the popular Pokémon slogan.

“There’s like Sourpatch Kids, Captain Crunch, cotton candy,” Sullivan said.

Locally, communities, including Lowell and Dracut, concerned that flavored tobacco and vaping products might appeal to children have cracked down. Currently about a third of communities in the state have laws limiting the sale of flavored tobacco products.

Last fall, the students broke off into small groups researching, creating a petition and calling local legislators.

For Santos, the calls were stressful, but soon became easier.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Santos said. “Just to know that you’re talking to a person who has power.”

Only a few students signed up to make calls at first, Neagle said.

“And then they couldn’t get enough,” he said. “They would make a phone call and then they would rush back to try to get another name and number.”

Nangle expressed interest and the students began working with his staff. In December they went to the Statehouse to present their research to him. Nangle said he was already concerned about youth access to vape products and considering submitting legislation on the issue.

“Thanks to the hard work of the students at the Pyne School it was really very eye opening to me,” he said.

He said he expects a hearing on the bill will be held in the next few months.

As the students prepare for high school, several said the experience made them more interested in a career in politics.

For some, like Scott, whose mother is former Lowell School Committee member Kim Scott, the experience was an extension of her exposure to politics.

“I knew I wanted to be interested in politics since I was little and she was on the School Committee,” Scott said. “But now that I really got introduced I feel like I really know what I want to do, and I want to get into politics.”

Santos said, unlike her friend, she didn’t grow up in a family engaged in civics or voting.

“It’s something I want to pursue to show my parents even though you came from such hard lives before, now I can go on to do this, because you gave me this,” she said.

Santos, like any aspiring elected official, also had a plug. She asked residents to contact their local state representatives in support of the vaping legislation.

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