Here’s why NC might not get accurate numbers for tobacco use among teens

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use of e-cigarettes by middle and high school students in the U.S. has sharply increased since 2011.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use of e-cigarettes by middle and high school students in the U.S. has sharply increased since 2011. TNS

It’s uncertain if North Carolina will effectively determine how many middle school and high school students are using tobacco since the Wake County school system has opted not to take part in a state survey.

Wake County school officials say the North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey, which is administered every two years, takes up too much instructional time and requires too much work. But health advocates and some Wake County commissioners are concerned that the absence of the state’s largest school system could invalidate the results of the survey.

“I’m getting some information from DHHS (N.C. Department of Health and Human Services) that without the Wake County Public School System this really invalidates the state data because there’s not enough of a sampling,” Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the commissioners, said at last week’s work session.

Brad McMillen, Wake’s assistant superintendent for data, research and accountability, downplayed the impact of the district not participating for the first time in the survey that dates back to 1999. He also said that school officials determined the lengthy survey didn’t meet standards for cutting into time that students would have spent in class.

“We get requests all the time for surveys,” McMillen said. “It’s a matter of not impinging on instructional time.”

Every two years, DHHS surveys thousands of middle school and high school students about tobacco use. The 2015 survey found that:

▪ One in 10 middle school students was a current tobacco user;

▪ Three in 10 high school students were current tobacco users;

▪ E-cigarette use by high school students increased 888 percent since 2011.

In October, McMillen said, DHHS contacted Wake about surveying 22 high schools and middle schools. He said the request was evaluated against the district’s research policy and its guidelines.

McMillen said it would have been “pretty onerous” to administer the survey. For instance, parental consent would have been needed for the 80 to 150 students who would have taken the survey at each school.

With more than 70 questions, McMillen said it would have taken a class period for students to complete the survey. Schools would have also had to find something to do for the students who hadn’t gotten parental consent.

“It’s just about protecting learning time for students and keeping the focus on teaching and learning,” he said.

After completion, McMillen said the state wouldn’t have been able to provide data for generalized results about tobacco use in the county.

McMillen said school officials also questioned whether the state survey was redundant because Wake participates in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which includes questions about tobacco usage.

State officials offered to reduce the survey to 12 schools, but the district still declined to participate.

“There is a risk that if schools do not participate, the data may not be representative of the entire state,” Kelly Haight, a DHHS spokeswoman, said in an email message. “This would make it harder to compare data from North Carolina to national data and data from other states.”

County commissioners are urging the school district to reconsider. Hutchinson said valuable information could be lost by Wake’s absence.

“We’re going to lose an entire year of data and break the chain of data since 1999, and possibly invalidate the state data,” he said.

It’s disheartening when school districts don’t take part in the youth tobacco survey, according to Peg O’Connell, executive director for the N.C. Alliance For Health. She said as much information is needed as possible from the survey to help make policy decisions.

“From a statewide advocacy perspective, we would like to know what the real story is across the state,” O’Connell said. “When you have school districts opt out, you don’t get a robust picture in North Carolina. We’ve got serious problems with youth tobacco usage.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui