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OP-ED: His lung collapsed after vaping. Now he wants to help students

Martin Vassolo
Miami Herald (TNS)
FILE - In this Oct. 4, 2019, file photo, a woman using an electronic cigarette exhales in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. With one in four teenagers now using e-cigarettes, underage vaping is universally condemned, and the federal government considers it an epidemic. But some other researchers believe recent trends continue to show vaping’s promise as a tool to steer millions of adult smokers away from cigarettes, the nation’s leading cause of death. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

After his vaping addiction led to a collapsed lung, a Miami Beach Senior High School graduate quit using his e-cigarette and focused his attention on helping other young people kick the habit.

Now he’s hoping his hometown leaders will collaborate with him to develop a holistic nicotine-prevention program in public schools in Miami Beach.

Chance Ammirata, an 18-year-old anti-vaping activist, addressed the City Commission recently asking to help implement a pilot program in Miami Beach public schools to teach students as young as fifth graders about the dangers of vape nicotine use.

Two people have died in Florida due to complications from vaping, according to the Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 48 deaths in 25 states and the District of Columbia as of Dec. 3. E-cigarette aerosol may contain ultra-fine particles that users inhale into the lungs, flavoring chemicals and cancer-causing chemicals, the CDC says.

Ammirata, who founded a nonprofit called Lung Love Foundation, speaks at schools across the country delivering his message. He said he would be an ideal spokesman for that message in Miami Beach schools because he got caught up in the epidemic and could easily relate to students just a few years younger than he is.

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He began using Juul e-cigarettes his junior year of high school after a friend “casually” introduced him to vaping. Before long, he couldn’t walk through the hallway without craving a hit. He said he saw the e-cigarette epidemic bloom while in high school.

During his freshman year, no one was vaping. But by junior year, seeing students pile into bathrooms to get a nicotine buzz became normal.

“It was insane, it was so quick,” he said. “Every time you’d walk into the bathroom, everyone was Juuling. It was just normal for people to relate about their Juul problems. It became so casual that it was just like talking about anything. It was only because I was addicted that it seemed so casual.”

He, like countless other teens, had been taught not to smoke cigarettes. But he thought vaping was safe. It’s just water vapor, a friend told him. Almost two years later — about four months ago — he was in the hospital with a collapsed lung.

The doctor showed him pictures of his lungs, with black dots scattered “all over them,” he said.

“My doctor compared them to the lungs of a 50-year-old man,” he said.

By the time he was out of surgery, the doctor told Ammirata he “could never smoke again.” That was almost worse news to him.

“I felt so addicted to it that I said, ‘What? I can’t smoke again?’ ” he said. “That was my first thought, which is insane.”

While Miami Dade Public Schools implemented efforts in 2018 to educate students and parents about the dangers of vaping, Ammirata said the program shouldn’t target only high-schoolers. The real problem starts in middle school, he said, before the majority of teens start vaping.

“We’re not starting young enough. We’re hitting it when it’s already too much of a problem that they need so much help to quit,” he said. “If we had education in fifth grade, they wouldn’t have the option to be hooked in the first place,” he said.

He also said students should not be disciplined for using nicotine vapes in school, but offered treatment.

Ammirata was invited to speak to the commission by Mayor Dan Gelber. He and multiple commissioners said they were open to collaborating with Ammirata.

Last year, the city passed legislation strengthening age-verification requirements for businesses that sell vape products and increasing punishment for people who sell to underage users. Federal law prohibits those under 18 years old from purchasing tobacco products, but Ammirata said he and his friends were rarely asked for ID when buying from smoke shops in the city. They were 16.

“I never really got (asked for ID),” he said.

In October, the city banned vaping in public parks. Commissioner Ricky Arriola said more work needs to be done inside classrooms.

“The classroom education is essential,” Arriola said. He said the city needs to “protect our youth” against an industry that seeks to “lure them into becoming lifelong customers.”

Ammirata said his proposal would include sleek videos designed to grab the attention of young audiences and not drown them in facts. He will offer first-hand experience to students, he said.

“They sound like they’re very much willing to do everything they can to help make sure that no other kids are growing up with this nicotine addiction and find the quickest way to eradicate this epidemic before it becomes too large of a problem,” he said.