Coalitions in Action—The Most Important One was the First One

Seeing the need to address vaping among students in the Springfield, Missouri community, the Greene County Tobacco and Vaping Prevention Coalition worked with Springfield Public Schools (SPS) to install vape drop boxes in all middle and high schools. While still a relatively new initiative, the coalition has seen success in their local school district via their curriculum pre-tests and post-tests.

“Our work began by starting the Vape Education Program in two schools, where the coalition did a presentation on vape prevention and our work grew from there,” said Springfield Public Schools Health and P.E. Coordinator, and Co-Chair of the Greene County Tobacco and Vape Prevention Coalition, Brad Brummel. “We established different educational modules for each grade level and now we train teachers on how to implement that prevention education rather than having experts coming in, because educators have that established relationship to provide prevention education. As we evaluated the educational program and saw a grant opportunity arise, we wanted to provide a chance for our students to use what they learned in the classroom and make a health enhancing behavior on their own – this is us not just teaching them what to do, but it’s giving them the chance to do it themselves.”

“I think the original conversation around addressing vape use started around having a Vape Take Back Day, and after further discussion, we developed the idea for vape drop boxes, giving students an anonymous place to make that healthy choice and dispose of their devices,” said Julie Viele, from the Greene County Health Department and Coalition Co-Chair. “As part of our grant, we were originally planning on launching drop boxes at five locations and were looking at schools who had the highest number of tobacco violations, but given that we had extra funding, we were able to supply all middle and high schools in the SPS system – so we had a total of 14, 5 high schools and 9 middle schools.  We worked with SPS to get their approval on the locations of the drop boxes and worked with each location to secure that safe, anonymous location.”

“We call this the SAVE Program, which stands for Springfield Area Vape Education Program,” said Katie Weathermon, Prevention Specialist at the Community Partnership of the Ozarks. “SAVE is a comprehensive program that uses evidence-based approaches to address vape use among youth. The program includes education, awareness and cessation resources to help reduce harm related to vape and tobacco use and exposure among our youth.”

“We have seen success since the SAVE program has been implemented,” said Viele.  “The Missouri Student Survey reported that in 2018, 14% of students reported past-30 day use of vape products. In 2020, that number dropped to 11.2%, so within those two years of implementing the program curriculum, we have seen improvements on use and also on the perception of harm.”

“The one thing that stuck out to me with vape devices, is that even our principals who collect them didn’t know what to do with them, so this gives them a place to safely get rid of them,” said Brummel. “I think the hardest part for sites was where to place these drop boxes.  We wanted the building owners to be responsible for this.  We provided guidance and let them know that the goal was for this to be anonymous.  We also wanted this somewhere in view of a camera, in the case of vandalism or theft.  We wanted kids to feel safe and for them to have the ability to turn in the vape and not get in trouble.”

“To date this year, there have been 26 vapes dropped off, but the most important one was that first one,” said Weathermon.  “That first one showed that there was willingness and buy-in from the students on disposing of their vape products.  And as with many things dealing with youth, seeing another one of their own do something is much more likely to convince them to do it, as opposed to solely hearing from educators and other adults on the risks of vaping tobacco.”

“Luckily our work was not impacted too drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions placed on being out in the community,” said Brummel.  “Many of our educational resources and packets were converted to digital pieces early in the developmental process, so we were still able to share those with the community sectors, even during times of quarantine. The one issue COVID did bring was a slight delay in installing the vape boxes, as there were, naturally, other items that took priority during the early stages of the pandemic.”

“I was happy to see that we were able to put stickers on each drop box to promote our SAVE Program, as well as our cessation resources, so even if a student didn’t utilize the drop box, there was still a reminder of the options.”

“We will continue to closely monitor the effectiveness of the drop boxes.  The SAVE Program is looking to partner with local health organizations to help provide one-on-one counseling and cessations support to those students looking to quit using tobacco.”

“We also want to work more closely with parents and provide them with the tools, resources and information,” said Viele, “that will allow them to have those difficult conversations, so that their youth can make healthy decisions.  We would love to take the SAVE program and partner with more youth-based organizations so that they have access to these drop boxes at their locations.”

“These drop boxes also offer not just students the ability to safely dispose of their vapes,” said Weathermon.  “Adult community members also have the option of using them as we look to expand their availability across the community.  This is still such a new initiative so we’re always looking for ways to improve this process.  We welcome any coalitions reading this to reach out to us with any questions or ideas they have surrounding vape drop boxes.  The more we can collaborate on something as new as this, the better we all will get at figuring out the best way to implement and execute it.”

“If I could give advice to anyone looking to implement a similar strategy,” said Brummel, “I would say the main thing is to getting stakeholder engagement and collaborating with them so that there is buy-in.  We are all working towards the same goal, so that makes getting to the next steps that much easier. We have buy-in and representation on this from so many different sectors of the community.”

“One of the biggest conversations we are currently having is how do we safely dispose of these vapes now that we’re getting them deposited in our drop boxes,” said Viele. “We’re active in conversations with our local environmental services and recycling departments. Overall, just being able to tell our community members that we are actively having youth dispose of their vapes through our drop boxes, allows us to bring hope into the community.”