Other Voices

To stop youths from vaping, focus on education and research, like we did with tobacco

Do you know if your child is vaping?

One Fort Worth mother was stunned to find out this year that her teenage son had been secretly vaping for months. The football field at his high school, she learned, was a lunchtime marketplace for buying electronic cigarettes ordered online by older students.

As Dr. Tracey Barnett, an associate dean and tobacco control expert at UNT Health Science Center, puts it: “Vaping has become the newest cool thing to do.”

If you follow the news, you know why this is so concerning. Nationally, there have been more than 500 reports of lung illness and eight deaths possibly related to vaping, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has activated an emergency operations center to coordinate investigation these illnesses.

No one yet knows exactly what is causing the illnesses. Many of the patients reported using products with cartridges that contain THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high. Others did not.

The truth is that every time someone puts a vaping device to his or her mouth, they have no way of knowing all the chemicals they are inhaling. Tests have detected particles of dangerous substances such as nickel, cadmium, lead and formaldehyde. This new industry remains largely unregulated.

Lung damage is not the only risk. A Fort Worth man died in February when he was struck by shrapnel from an exploding vape pen. A 2018 study by UNTHSC School of Public Health alumnus Dr. Matthew Rossheim and School of Public Health Dean Dr. Dennis Thombs determined that the number of injuries caused by e-cigarettes is probably drastically underreported in the United States.

The study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, found instances of people suffering second- and third-degree burns, losing teeth and suffering damage to their tongues and faces.

Despite this, the electronic cigarette industry has grown. A 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey reported a 900 percent increase in e-cigarette use between 2011 and 2015. Data from the 2018 survey indicated that more than 3.6 million kids reported vaping in the previous 30 days.

With added candy and juice flavorings, it’s clear that these devices are marketed to young people. The Trump administration is reportedly preparing a ban on flavored e-cigarettes.

Protecting our children and young adults will require teamwork and education in our community. The UNTHSC School of Public Health in committed to helping lead that effort. Our School of Public Health recently served as a resource partner to the Texas 21 Initiative, providing factual information that led to the Legislature raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 21.

Barnett, who has extensively studied tobacco issues, has helped educate Fort Worth students, parents and school officials about the rise and risks in vaping. A common misperception she finds is that many people think e-cigarettes are far safer than cigarette smoking. Some are surprised when she informs them that tobacco companies are producing them. Same manufacturers. Same advertisers.

One strategy is to recall how we persuaded young people to stop smoking cigarettes, Dr. Barnett says. Provisions forbidding cigarette companies from directly or indirectly targeting youths, advertising restrictions and the prohibition of flavored cigarettes were successful.

Cartoons, transit advertising and most forms of outdoor advertising, such as billboards and branded merchandise were banned. Flavored cigarettes were banned several years later.

As a result, the youth smoking rate dropped sharply.

To protect our children, we should treat vaping like we treated cigarettes. That starts with educating young people and their parents with what we know about e-cigarettes — and, perhaps more importantly, what we still don’t know.

At UNTHSC, we are making a concerted effort to research and understand the impact of e-cigarettes on the Fort Worth community. The public health of our children depends on it

Dr. Michael R. Williams is president of the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth.