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As vaping illnesses mount, Virginia officials warn of dangers of e-cigarettes

Health officials are warning Virginians to stop using e-cigarettes as the Trump administration moved to ban flavored vapes in response to hundreds of cases of lung disease and six deaths related to vaping.

Capital News Service

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By Georgia Green

When cases of lung disease linked to vaping began popping up across the country this summer, the Virginia Poison Center began receiving calls from people who thought they might have become ill from using e-cigarettes.

“Nobody knows why there’s all of a sudden been a cluster,” said Dr. S. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center. “There is an inherent danger, and nobody really knows what that danger is. If you’re young and healthy, why risk it? Just stop.”

On Thursday, the Trump administration moved to ban flavored vapes in response to the spike in lung illnesses, the latest in a series of measures nationwide aimed at curbing e-cigarette use. This summer, a Virginia law went into effect that increased the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21, and Virginia Commonwealth University instituted a smoking ban on its Monroe Park Campus.

Virginia is one of dozens of states with reports of vaping-related illness. Nationwide, officials have linked 380 cases of lung disease and six deaths to e-cigarettes.

Altria Group, the Henrico-based conglomerate that produces and sells tobacco and related products, is a top investor in Juul Labs Inc., maker of the popular Juul e-cigarettes. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Juul about its marketing practices, “including those targeted at students, tribes, health insurers and employers.”

“We agree that urgent action is needed, and we look forward to reviewing the guidance,” Altria spokesman George Parman said in an email. “Reducing youth use of e-vapor products is a top priority for Altria.”

Vaping often has been cast as a safe alternative to cigarettes. But Rose, who is also a professor at the VCU School of Medicine, said that because the products are so new, there is a lack of data on the long-term use of vaping. As a result, it’s “premature” to say e-cigarettes are indeed safer, Rose said.

“When these things were touted as a safe alternative to cigarettes, that was really only based on the harmful effects of long-term cigarettes. It really wasn’t a comparison because there wasn’t any data,” Rose said. “There’s certainly no data for long-term use of these products; they haven’t been around long enough.”

Using vapes early on can lead young people to smoke cigarettes in the future, according to a 2015 study.

How prevalent is vaping in Virginia?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled data on e-cigarette use in 37 states and U.S. territories in 2017. The data showed that:

  • About 33% of Virginia high school students had used an electronic cigarette at some point. That compared with about 42% of high school students nationwide.
  • About 12% of high schoolers in Virginia were current vape users, just below the national average of 13%. (The CDC defines a current user as someone who has vaped at least once during the past 30 days.)
  • About 3% of the state’s high school students vaped frequently. That was on par with the national average. (A frequent user is someone who has used e-cigarettes at least 20 days during the past month.)
  • About 10% of Virginia’s young adults (ages 18-24) were current e-cigarette users. That also was about the national average.

“If somebody’s a teenager, a young person, you don’t want them to continue doing this for 20, 30 years,” Rose said. “There is an inherent danger, and nobody really knows what that danger is. If you’re young and healthy, why risk it?”

Last week, the FDA announced it had found a commonality — the presence of vitamin E acetate — among users who had fallen ill after vaping cannabis products. But Rose said it could take months or years to understand the cause of the outbreak, which he expects will grow before the situation improves.

The wide scope of products people are using — some of which contain nicotine or THC, and are purchased at stores or illicitly — makes it more challenging to narrow down an exact cause.

“There are a variety of products out there, people putting a variety of ingredients in those products,” Rose said. “So there’s not a lot of uniformity. There’s some common themes but not to all patients who have developed the problem.”

Some e-cigarette users are having second thoughts

VCU student Kevin McGarry has seen that variety firsthand. He said he started using a Juul over the summer, about a month or two after he stopped smoking cigarettes. He said he knew one person who modified a vape so that he could put “Juul juice” in it. That product has one of the highest nicotine concentrations of any e-cigarette, health officials say.

“There’s so many different things, all different kinds of new vapes coming out,” McGarry said, “new devices all the time.”

As a 20-year-old, McGarry said he’s found it more challenging to acquire Juul pods since the smoking age increased to 21 — but at the end of the day, “anyone who wants it could really get their hands on it.”

And data shows more people have picked up vaping in recent years. Nationally, the rate of current e-cigarette use among high school students increased to almost 21% in 2018, according to the CDC.

McGarry says he doesn’t plan to continue vaping for very long, and the recent outbreak of illnesses has a lot to do with that decision.

“Before all this came out, I was kind of comfortable thinking, ‘OK, yeah, I’m not smoking cigarettes anymore; this is a better alternative,’” McGarry said. “Seeing that these young kids are getting really sick just a few years into vaping, it’s really changed my mind.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Bills advance to expand in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status

The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

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The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, would require a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college. The bill reported out of the House appropriations committee Wednesday and heads to the floor for a vote.

Submitting income tax returns would be a challenge for students straight out of high school who have not worked or filed taxes before, according to Jorge Figueredo, executive director of Edu-Futuro, a nonprofit that seeks to empower immigrant youth and their families.

HB 1547, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, applies the same provisions as SB 935, except the requirement to file proof of filed taxes. The bill is currently in the Senate Health and Education committee.

Immigrant rights advocates have openly supported these two bills. Figueredo said he is “thrilled” to see the bill advance.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s something where we don’t want to have a group of people to get to a point that they cannot reach their highest potential,” Figueredo said.

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students would be eligible for in-state tuition. He said Maryland saw an increase in graduation rates after allowing students without documentation to access in-state tuition rates. Maryland officials believe this led less students to drop out of high school because they saw realistic options for continuing education, according to Herring.

There is uncertainty about the future of the DACA program. A study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis stated that uncertainty creates a risk for students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities, who fear they could lose DACA status and access to in-state tuition rates. The institute, which studies issues affecting low-to-moderate income residents, recommended that lawmakers could mitigate the potential impact of that loss by expanding in-state tuition access to Virginia residents regardless of immigration status. The institute said that by doing so the state would also provide more affordable access to colleges for residents whose immigration status does not otherwise fall into the categories currently required for in-state tuition.

Figueredo said that allowing these students to apply for in-state tuition would create more opportunities for undocumented students to become professionals, something that would benefit all of Virginia.

High school graduates in Virginia earn about $35,000 on average compared to people with a bachelor’s degree who earn about $65,000 a year, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“A person that has a higher level of education in comparison to a person that has only a high school diploma, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not captured in the form of taxes, so that’s a direct benefit right there,” Figueredo said.

Katherine Amaya is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. Her family emigrated from El Salvador when she was 8 years old. Amaya said she pays out-of-state tuition rates as an undocumented student, about $6,000 per semester, compared to classmates who pay about $2,000 for in-state tuition per semester.

Amaya said she was on the honor roll throughout high school and her first semester in college. She said she was able to apply for scholarships for undocumented students but it was a competitive process. She was awarded a few scholarships and said she was able to use that money for her first semester of college but is afraid she won’t get as much help in the future.

Amaya said she had many friends in high school that were also having a hard time paying for college or university because they were also undocumented and did not qualify for in-state tuition.

“A lot of them, they couldn’t even afford going to community college, so they just dropped out and started working,” Amaya said. “It’s sad, you know, that they don’t have the money or the help to keep going to school.”

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Bill banning handheld cellphone use while driving clears House, Senate

The state Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would prohibit holding a personal communications device while driving a motor vehicle.

Capital News Service

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By Andrew Ringle

The state Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would prohibit holding a phone while driving a motor vehicle on Virginia roadways and which implements a penalty for the traffic violation.

House Bill 874 will head to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has voiced support for prohibiting the use of handheld cellphones while driving. The measure, sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would go into effect at the start of 2021.

“I’m happy that HB874 passed 29-9 in the Senate,” Bourne said in an email. “HB874 will make our roadways safer for all Virginians by prohibiting drivers from holding a cell phone while driving a motor vehicle.”

The House of Delegates approved the bill Feb. 5 with a 72-24 vote after incorporating four bills with similar proposals. Violations of the measures in HB 874 would result in a fine of $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses. If a violation occurs in a highway work zone, there would be a mandatory fee of $250.

Bourne said the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, of which he is a member, supports making Virginia roadways safer without risking “disparate application of law.”

“We were happy to work with Drive Smart Virginia to improve the legislation to ensure that the new law is applied fairly and equitably,” Bourne said.

Hands-free driving garners bicameral and bipartisan support, according to Brantley Tyndall, director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA. He said the defeat of previous bills with similar measures in past years was deflating, but that Bourne’s latest proposal reworked the language to make it successful.

“Bike Walk RVA is happy to see leadership from our area, namely chief patron Delegate Jeff Bourne, choosing to lead this issue on the House side with his bill HB 874,” Tyndall said in an email.

Tyndall called Bourne’s bill a “commonsense safety measure” and said he was glad to see support for the bill from old and new leadership in the General Assembly.

“We can all feel a part of saving dozens or hundreds of lives over the next few years, including the one out of every six traffic fatalities that is a person walking or biking,” Tyndall said.

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

The bill would not apply to emergency vehicle drivers, such as police officers and firefighters, nor employees of the Department of Transportation while performing official duties. It would also exempt drivers who are parked legally or at a full stop.

Last fall, Richmond City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ban using mobile devices while driving. With a signature from Northam, HB 874 would make the same policy statewide law.

Senate Bill 932 proposed adding school zones to the list of areas where holding a phone while driving is prohibited, which is more limited than HB 874’s proposal. SB 932 failed to advance from a House subcommittee on Monday.

Richmond Police Chief Will Smith said during a press conference in January that his department supports HB 874 and that anyone with children shouldn’t be surprised by the proposal.

“One of the very first things that we all talk about with our kids is, ‘make sure that you leave your phone out of your hand and don’t text, don’t call until you get to your destination,’” Smith said. “Yet we, as an adult society, tend not to obey our own advice.”

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Arts & Entertainment

The world is coming to Richmond for the Menuhin Competition – the “Olympics of Violin” – this May

The world is coming to Richmond from May 14-24, 2020 for the Menuhin Competition, the world’s leading international competition for young violinists. This Competition, called the “Olympics of the Violin,” is held every two years in different cities around the world.

RVAHub Staff

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The world is coming to Richmond from May 14-24, 2020 for the Menuhin Competition, the world’s leading international competition for young violinists. This Competition, called the “Olympics of the Violin,” is held every two years in different cities around the world. Richmond is set to be the host city in 2020—only the second time that the Competition has been held in the U.S.

The Menuhin Competition Richmond 2020 will showcase the exceptional talents of 44 competitors: 22 Juniors ages 15 and under, and 22 Seniors from ages 15-21. A record 321 candidates from 32 countries and five continents applied by the Oct. 31 deadline, and the 44 global competitors were announced in January. One of the competitors is from Virginia, Kayleigh Kim.

For 11 days in May, Richmond will be transformed into a celebratory festival of music with competitions, performances, master classes and concerts in several music genres throughout the region. Co-hosts are the Richmond Symphony, the City of Richmond, the University of Richmond, VCU and VPM.

The first round events at Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond are free to the public, but a ticket is required for admission and can be requested here. Semi-final rounds will be held at the W.E. Singleton Center at VCU, and final rounds will be held at the Dominion Energy Center downtown.

For more information about the Menuhin Competition Richmond 2020, including dates, times, venues and tickets for all of the events, visit the website.

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