Viewpoint: We must alert the public about the dangers of vaping

As a father and healthcare executive for 35 years, I am alarmed by the vaping epidemic on many fronts: more than 500 severe lung illnesses in 38 states; several deaths possibly linked to vaping; an epidemic of adolescents using e-cigarettes; and the unnerving reality that even our leading health experts can't fully explain the scope or cause of this threat.

I am calling on all health networks to put this crisis at the top of the agenda. 

While scientific experts, regulators and lawmakers aggressively work to understand what's causing so much illness and prevent it, we can commit to educating our communities, especially our children.

We can't stand by and watch a whole new generation potentially become addicted to nicotine — or worse.

At Hackensack Meridian Health, we are gathering nurses, medical students and public health experts to launch an aggressive education campaign, especially for adolescents.

We are training 50 nurses who will educate students in 100 schools about the potential catastrophic outcomes from vaping. A team of students from the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University is getting involved too. Working with an adolescent psychologist, they developed an entire program to educate young people, a community health project launched at the request of local leaders who identified vaping as their biggest public health concern. Our emergency room teams are closely monitoring the situation, alarmed at how quickly this problem has become a public health crisis. Our 17-hospital network has treated a handful of patients with acute lung illness who reported vaping, including a man in his 40s who was put on a ventilator. 

Even stoic veteran emergency physicians are unsettled by what is unfolding across the country. 

One of our emergency department chiefs said this: "Young people are going from the soccer field and into the ICU and they're not leaving the hospital for a while." 

Here's why we launched a major public health campaign. 

One in 4 high school students in our country reports having used e-cigarettes. That's a 78 percent increase in just a year, according to the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Among middle school students, there was a nearly 50 percent increase in the number who reported vaping in a year. 

And here's more disturbing data: Two-thirds of adolescents who vape believe they are only inhaling flavors, not nicotine or anything potentially dangerous, the federal government reports.

Additionally, e-cigarette companies are spending billions on advertising, which can have an overwhelming impact, especially on our children: 7 in 10 middle school and high school students reported seeing ads for the products, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is the perfect storm — a staggering lack of awareness of potential harm and constant ads hyping these products.

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us. 

It's imperative that we act. While vaping has been pitched as a tool to help adults quit smoking, federal data show that adolescents are more likely to start smoking if they have vaped. 

It's unnerving that we are in a place where people believe vaping is safer than smoking. 

Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, puts it this way:

"To say that something is safer than a product like cigarettes that kills 7 million people in the world each year because of tobacco-related illness and half a million people in this country, is not saying a lot. We have no evidence of whether it's safe at all. There's just no scientific basis for that."

We have been making major strides to reduce smoking in our nation. But data show there's a dramatic resurgence in the number of young people who report using tobacco. 

We know that the power of public education campaigns can change opinions, practices and laws when it comes to vital health issues.

We must take the same approach with vaping and let them know they could face lifelong — and possibly even fatal — consequences if they use e-cigarettes. 

Consider how dramatically we are working to address the opioid crisis, which is contributing to a decrease in life expectancy in the U.S. for the third year in a row — something our parents never could have imagined. 

After media reports, public hearings and education campaigns, we are seeing progress: Patients are more knowledgeable and asking hard questions about pain medication; prescribing patterns are changing; and pain management protocols — especially in surgery and in emergency care — are including more nonaddictive treatment across the nation.

Campaigns like Mothers Against Drunk Driving sparked awareness about the dangers of impaired driving and resulted in more stringent laws to penalize drunk drivers. As a result, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities fell by 65 percent between 1982 and 2015.

I am optimistic that we can marshal the same determination to protect our communities, and especially our children, against the potential perils of vaping.

Robert C. Garrett is the CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey's largest and most integrated health network.

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