The task force New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy appointed last week to recommend policies related to e-cigarettes got to work quickly, holding its first meeting Monday with briefings from several public health officials.
Acting state Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli — who chairs the Electronic Smoking Device Task Force — told its members their mission is urgent as use of e-cigarettes, or vapes, has “skyrocketed” since they were introduced on the U.S. market more than a decade ago. Health experts are now investigating how these devices might be connected to hundreds of cases of mysterious lung illness nationwide, including nearly two dozen in the Garden State.
“The public health challenge before us is extremely important and time sensitive. As a result, our timeframe is short — we have just 19 days to submit our public report to Governor Murphy,” Persichilli told the group, according to remarks provided by the DOH. The panel includes representatives for the state treasurer, attorney general, education officials, and other commissioners and division heads that work with children and families.
In addition, acting as the task force chair, Persichilli — a nurse and former hospital-system executive — wrote on Friday to county and local health officials to highlight her concerns about the devices and urge them to share public awareness materials the state has developed, including a new campaign aimed at young people. The department had previously launched an awareness effort targeted toward parents, coaches and teachers.
As of 2018, one in five high school students in New Jersey reported using vapes, as did one in 20 middle school pupils, Persichilli said, more than double the 2017 rates. Half of those here using the battery-powered devices — which heat oil, generally infused with nicotine or a cannabis-related chemical, plus flavoring, to create a vapor that is inhaled — are under age 35. (The trend comes as smoking rates continue to decline and remain below the national average in the Garden State.)
Flavors that children like
“Equally alarming is that flavored vaping oils are marketed with names like cotton candy, strawberry cheesecake and razzleberry that are attractive to children despite the fact that such sales are illegal in this state,” Persichilli wrote to health officials. And at least four in 10 young people cited these flavors as the primary draw, she told the task force Monday, even though state law prohibits the sale of these products to those under age 21.
Concern over these devices has exploded nationwide in recent weeks, as health officials have identified 380 cases of severe lung problems in relatively young people who had no risk factors, other than e-cigarette use; dozens more cases are still under review. In New Jersey, officials are reviewing 19 similar cases and have confirmed that three others met a federal definition for “vaping-associated illness,” according to the DOH’s count early this week, a tally officials expect will continue to rise.
At Monday’s task force meeting, Dr. Christina Tan, the state epidemiologist, updated the group on the work public officials are doing to better understand these cases of severe lung illness. In New Jersey, the incidents involve individuals between the age of 16 and 45, all of whom were hospitalized.
Unlicensed or adulterated
There is evidence that the confirmed cases of vape-associated illness involve individuals who used unlicensed or adulterated products, modified on the street. “At this point, it is still unknown what the product is. All the cases have some sort of vaping association,” Tan told the group.
“As Governor Murphy said when he announced the task force Thursday, everyone should stop using e-cigarettes,” Persichilli said. “In fact, women who are pregnant, youth, young adults and adults who are not currently using tobacco products should never use e-cigarette products.”
The vape-related lung illness — which has led to six deaths nationwide — sparked a flurry of responses from elected and appointed leaders at all levels of government. President Donald Trump said last week that his team is exploring a way to ban the flavored additives; government officials in Michigan and New York have taken action to do so.
In New Jersey, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and other lawmakers have also pledged to further regulate access to these products, especially when it comes to children. And Murphy signed an executive order Thursday to create the ten-member advisory group, which he charged with crafting a “comprehensive, coordinated strategy to protect the New Jerseyans and educate the public, particularly youth, about the risks of electronic smoking devices.”
The committee — which was given three weeks to report back to the governor, state Legislature and public — is to review existing e-cigarette sales restrictions, as well as the regulations that are in place for regular cigarettes, as well as the state’s capacity to investigate health irregularities tied to these products, among other things.
Vape shops in New Jersey: 250
At the task force meeting, Persichilli said there are now more than 250 vape shops in the Garden State, making sale of the products a growing challenge to police. In addition, the form of many devices makes it easy for young people to hide their vaping habits.
“Some electronic cigarettes even look like USB flash drives, pens and other items that kids can conceal from parents, teachers and coaches,” she warned. “They can be used to deliver marijuana and other drugs and it is difficult to know what each individual product contains — especially those sold on the black market.”
These concerns led the state to develop VapeFactsNJ.com, a public campaign and list of resources for parents, teachers, coaches and healthcare providers, hosted on the department’s website.
The state has also funded a youth-focused campaign, Incorruptible.us, that suggests vapes are just “Big Tobacco’s new way to get them addicted to nicotine products,” as Persichilli described it to local health officials, urging them to share these materials. This initiative is designed to be interactive, enabling kids to create related memes and share social media messages.
In addition, the DOH is planning a public hearing on vape use Tuesday, Sept. 24, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., at its offices in Trenton. Additional details — including registration — will be shared via social media in the days to come.