Virginia lawmakers have done more than just raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed two bills Wednesday that ban tobacco on school property for every school district in the state - outlawing the product in every school-related setting, including school activities off campus. The governor last month signed off on bills barring people under 21 from buying tobacco and nicotine products.
“We have a responsibility to prevent our children from being exposed to all types of tobacco or nicotine-containing products,” Northam said in a statement.
Currently 40 districts in the state - less than one-third of the total number of school systems - have comprehensive tobacco-free policies. Now every district will have to ban the use and distribution of tobacco and vaping products on school buses, on school property and at school activities, such as musicals and sporting events, both on and off campus.
State law currently forbids smoking on school buses and in school buildings. It doesn’t tackle smoking on school grounds or school-sponsored events.
“It didn’t include the breadth that we have here,” said Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, of the current law. Hope carried the bill - House Bill 2384 - in the House of Delegates while Sen. Lionel Spruill, D-Chesapeake, proposed it in the Senate.
About 12 percent of high school students in the state use e-cigarettes, according to state data, a rate nearly twice as high as the number smoking traditional cigarettes. Virginians must now be 21 years old before they purchase cigarettes and liquid nicotine that’s used in vaping devices, making the state one of seven in the U.S. to have that age limit.
Virginia will become one of 19 states to have a full school tobacco ban.
In the Richmond area, Caroline, Charles City, Chesterfield, Henrico, King William and Powhatan counties already have the full policies, according to the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, along with Hopewell, Petersburg and Richmond cities.
“Anything you can do to de-normalize things related to smoking and say that this is not an acceptable thing really helps,” said Jayne Flowers, the project manager for the Virginia Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Program.
A state campaign led by high school students has been pushing for the ban for the past four years.
When Y Street, a volunteer group overseen by the Foundation for Healthy Youth, started in 2015, 20 of the state’s 132 districts had the comprehensive policies. That number has risen to 40.
“Students should go to school to learn inside and outside of the classroom and just having tobacco around is a distraction,” said Brynna Walker, a senior at Tucker High School in Henrico who volunteers for Y Street.
The bills take effect July 1.