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Ruby Johnson: A Voice in the Fight Against Youth Vaping

The experience of sending our first child off to college this past fall was a life changing experience… but not in the way I ever expected.

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It wasn’t long after I began the trip to Colorado with our oldest that I knew something was wrong. She was coughing, running a fever and complaining of pain in her chest. She also admitted to me that she had been vaping- on and off for the last 18 months. What unfolded over the next 48 hours was what nightmares are made of. She was admitted to the hospital, her lungs appeared to be completely hazy with pneumonia on a CT scan, she had dangerously low oxygen levels and it just kept getting worse. And worse. It took days to get an accurate diagnosis of a severe and sudden lung illness… all due to vaping. After a week-long hospital stay--many of those days spent in the ICU--she was released with steroids and an oxygen tank to begin her freshman year of college.

We were very lucky that her condition improved and she was able to eventually resume a pretty normal activity level… but as a mom, I became angrier and angrier as I delved into learning about an industry that had literally turned our lives upside down. 

As parents we’d been blindsided- though I’d found a cosmetic pouch with a JUUL and refills (that I had to google because I had no idea what they were) we handled it, or so we thought. We’d grounded, thrown the products away, made bedroom doors stay open, etc. But we had ZERO idea how addictive and attractive these products were, how easy they were to conceal and how the fact that they are in our kids’ hands is NO accident. 

These companies knew EXACTLY what they were doing as they designed the most efficient delivery of a high level of nicotine in a sleek (read: easy to hide from parents and teachers) device with appealing flavors. And just in case middle schoolers and teens didn’t get the memo, they bought advertising spots on kid-frequented websites and came up with catchy names for the flavors they swear are meant only for adults. 

I couldn’t NOT speak up. At our daughter’s request, I shared our story in a Facebook post, to tell other kids how she’d come close to dying from vaping, and to give parents a heads up that these products were out there, they’re being used by a LOT of kids, and they’re often flying under the radar. I had no idea the response we’d get… my post was shared over a half million times and we got thousands of messages from parents and teens alike. So many lives are being affected negatively by vaping. We just prayed that if we shared something so personal, and risked judgment of our parenting, etc., that it would give us the opportunity to work for real change. We couldn’t have imagined how abundantly those prayers would be answered. 

Six months ago, I had no idea the organizations and legislators who I would partner with and who’d lift our story up, giving us amazing opportunities to fight against Big Vape. I joined forces with PAVe (Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes) and became the Illinois Advocate for the organization. I have had the chance to advocate alongside the American Heart Association and testify on flavored tobacco bills in Illinois. Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois have been such tireless advocates in this fight and have invited me to speak to Democratic Senators on the youth vaping epidemic, to testify in front of Congress about our family’s experience with a vaping related lung illness and even join them in a press conference to announce proposed vaping legislation. Earlier this month, I had a true once in a lifetime experience when I was invited to be Congressman Krishnamoorthi’s guest for the President’s State of the Union address in Washington DC. Each member of Congress gets to bring a guest and he invited me to highlight the issue of the youth vaping epidemic. 

I have learned so much since our experience in August. First of all, life is precious and we need to be safe and educated. Vaping is RAMPANT among youth and it’s a conversation we need to keep having as parents. What are you seeing at school? What are the popular products? What’s happening on social media? What do you think about all of this? Our kids are so smart, they need to know how they’re being targeted and lied to. And we as parents need to know what’s up. I know that “Big Vape” is just Big Tobacco 2.0 - they’re using the same deceptive tactics and it’s a huge beast to slay. However, I have also learned that a single voice CAN make a difference, and many voices demanding better for our youth are so powerful… and will NOT be silenced.

Ruby Johnson

Illinois Advocate,
Parents Against Vaping e-Cigarettes (PAVe)
American Heart Association You're the Cure partner

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