With the death toll connected to e-cigarette use on the rise nationally, one of New Jersey’s largest health care systems has launched an initiative to reduce youth vaping. The multi-pronged effort by Hackensack Meridian Health includes grants for schools and community programs, a partnership with mental health providers, and a public health study to be conducted by its new medical school.
Hackensack — which oversees 17 hospitals and hundreds of provider offices stretching from Bergen to Ocean counties — announced Thursday it is committing $1 million to its “Take Vape Away” campaign and its CEO called on other health networks to join in the battle to curb vape use among young people. Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest health insurance provider, also contributed $100,000 for the local grant effort.
The campaign is the latest attempt to curb e-cigarette use in the Garden State; last week a vape task force set up by Gov. Phil Murphy released its report, which included a proposal to ban flavored e-cigarettes that experts believe are most attractive to kids. Concerns about the popular devices have skyrocketed as their use has been linked to the death of nearly two dozen people nationwide, including a woman from north Jersey and a 17-year-old from New York City.
“As a father and health care executive for 35 years, I am alarmed at the vaping epidemic, especially among our children and believe we must take an aggressive, multi-targeted approach,’’ said Hackensack Meridian Health’s CEO Robert C. Garrett. “We are calling on all health networks and youth community groups to join in our effort because the scope and scale of this problem will require all of us to engage.’’
While details were limited, Hackensack’s proposal will direct $750,000 to the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University so students there can examine the health impacts of vaping and determine how best to reduce e-cigarette use. The 18-month study is designed to identify the most effective ways to prevent vaping among young people, or to convince those who have started vaping to stop.
Along with Horizon, Hackensack will create a $300,000 grant program to support schools or community programs in their own efforts to combat vaping; organizations can apply for up to $7,000 each. This could include a buy-back program in which e-cigarette devices are purchased from teens, HMH said, and will begin with schools in their coverage area.
Nurses to get the word out in schools
Hackensack also plans to spend $50,000 to train some 50 nurses about the dangers of vaping and then dispatch them to share that message with students at 100 schools. The health network will also partner with the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies to provide behavioral health services to adolescents.
“Hackensack Meridian Health’s efforts will help prevent youth from starting to vape and assist those already using e-cigarettes to overcome their nicotine addiction,” said acting state Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, who chaired the state task force on vaping. “These initiatives will build upon the state’s efforts to combat vaping and address the health effects that come along with e-cigarette use.”
While smoking rates for regular cigarettes have gone down in recent decades in New Jersey and nationwide, e-cigarette use has soared in recent years among teens and tweens across the country; federal data shows a nearly 80% rise among high school students and a 50% hike in middle school use in 2018 alone. State findings show roughly one in five high school students used vapes in 2017.
E-cigarettes work by heating oil infused with nicotine or marijuana-based chemicals — often mixed with fruity or sweet flavors — to create a vapor that is inhaled; while they do not contain the same cancer-causing tar as traditional cigarettes, they contain far more addictive nicotine. Vape advocates argue they are a safer alternative for adults than regular smokes and some users are adamant the devices have essentially saved their lives by enabling them to quit traditional cigarettes.
But public health officials worry about the long-term impact of e-cigarettes on a new generation. According to federal data shared by HMH, two-thirds of adolescents surveyed thought they were inhaling flavored vapor alone, without nicotine or other substances. Scientists also note that, since vaping products are relatively new, little is known about the potential side effects of other additives in the oils.
Investigation of vape-related illnesses
New Jersey currently is investigating, along with federal officials, 32 cases of possible vape-related lung illness in the state, a fraction of the nearly 1,000 such cases under review nationwide. Experts have said more study is needed to identify exactly what is causing the damage, but most of the cases appear to involve products bought from the street rather than from a licensed dealer; many also involved THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
According to a study of 17 lung-tissue samples conducted by the Mayo Clinic, the vaping-associated illness it observed appears to cause lung damage similar to the severe tissue burns caused by chemical warfare or toxic industrial accidents.
The report by Murphy’s vape task force called on the Legislature to ban flavored vaping products and work with his administration on other measures to beef up regulation and enforcement of vape sales, which are supposed to be limited to those over age 21.
Several state lawmakers have pledged to follow through with the flavor ban and some have signaled they are also open to banning menthol cigarettes, the only flavored version still on the market. Legislators have also proposed other regulatory and enforcement measures designed to protect young people from e-cigarettes.