Fargo health official 'not surprised' by Midwest hospitalizations linked to vaping

Melissa Markegard, tobacco prevention coordinator for Fargo Cass Public Health, displays a few of the vaping devices popular among teenagers. Health officials in Wisconsin and Illinois recently announced hospitalizations of more than a dozen teens and young adults related to vaping.

FARGO — A rash of hospitalizations in two states linked to vaping has local public health officials here reinforcing a message about its health hazards.

Health officials reported last week that at least 14 teenagers and young adults — 11 in Wisconsin and 3 in Illinois — were hospitalized with severe breathing problems after vaping.

Some also experienced coughing, chest pain and fatigue, according to a report from the Wisconsin State Journal.

A few patients needed treatment in an intensive care unit and were put on a ventilator for a time. It’s not known if the lung damage is permanent.

Melissa Markegard, tobacco prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health, said she is not surprised by the hospitalizations.

“It’s a very real epidemic,” Markegard said.

Neil Charvat, tobacco prevention and control director for the North Dakota Department of Health, said he’s heard anecdotal information about people having increased heart rates and asthma attacks after vaping.

“We know it’s an issue,” Charvat said, “but we don’t have access to (hospital) discharge data.”

The popularity of e-cigarette use or vaping has exploded in the U.S., with JUUL controlling 72 percent of the market, Markegard said.

The company makes a small, slim device that delivers flavored nicotine to the user. It looks like a USB or flash drive which is easily hidden and may fall under the radar of unsuspecting parents.

Other brands of devices look like an MP3 music player or a makeup compact, she said.

Vaping on the rise

According to its website, JUUL states its goal as “improving the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes.”

Charvat said federal health agencies don't necessarily discourage vaping by adults, if it can help them quit smoking.

The North Dakota Department of Health has a different view.

"Our take is, we won’t recommend them for anybody," Charvat said.

According to Markegard, the most recent High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey, from 2017, put cigarette use among North Dakota youth at around 10 percent.

When new survey results become available sometime in September, she believes cigarette numbers will be dwarfed by vape numbers.

She expects the state to follow the national trend, with 44 to 46 percent of youth reporting they’ve used a vape in the last 30 days.

Young people are drawn to the flavors used in vape pods, including mango and mint, which actually irritate the lungs, she said.

Because the pods contain nicotine salt, the user ingests larger amounts of nicotine, Charvat said.

The result can be nicotine poisoning, or “nic sick,” as teens call it, with symptoms including nausea, headache and light-headedness.

The potential for addiction is high.

"We need to do something about it before we get to those long-term health issues that we just don’t know yet," Markegard said.

Cigarettes are regulated, containing about one milligram of nicotine per cigarette, but vaping is not, so the user doesn’t really know how much they’re getting, Markegard said.

She expects some federal regulation for vaping coming in the future, but it likely won't happen until 2022, at the earliest.

To parents: 'Take them away'

Most of Wisconsin's hospitalizations related to vaping were in the southeastern part of the state, while the Illinois cases were in close proximity— just across the border from there, in the northeastern part of the state.

It's not yet known whether the cases are linked to a common source, such as a particular vape product or nicotine liquid.

With so many unknowns about vaping, parents should take a stand in protecting their children, Markegard said.

Pay attention to changes in your child’s behavior, she said. If they start carrying things that are out of the ordinary for them, such as a fanny pack that could be used to hide a vaping device, ask questions.

And what should you do if you find a vape in your child’s possession?

“Take them away. You need to be the parent. Treat it like any other thing they’re not supposed to have under the law,” Markegard said.

It’s against state law for anyone under age 18 to possess, buy or use a vaping device, and vaping is banned anywhere smoking is banned in the state.

If students vape in a school bathroom and they’re under 18, they’re actually breaking two laws, Markegard said, a good reminder with a new school year just weeks away.

“It’s really a ‘Back to school without JUUL’ type of message that we want to send forth,” she said.

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