Local doctor on a mission to keep kids from vaping

A local pediatrician has made it his mission to keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of kids.

Dr. Lester Hartman of Westwood-Mansfield Pediatric Associates talks to his patients as young as eight years old about vaping.

"I start with some kids as early as eight," Hartman said. "Mostly 10- and 11-year-olds. But one teacher told me, 'You should start in second grade. Just point it out and say: It's poison.'"

Hartman speaks at schools and police departments about vaping. His backpack bears the slogan, "Don't be a Juul Fuul," referring to the popular brand of e-cigarette. His car, covered in bumper stickers, urges kids to say no and parents to support bills that would ban the sale of all vape and tobacco flavors at convenience stores.

"This is the most widespread public health crisis in adolescent young adults and soon-to-be late elementary school kids," Hartman said. "This is a true, absolute crisis."

But vapers and the e-cigarette industry tout vaping as a healthier alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes and a way to kick the habit.

Declaring a public health emergency last month, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a four-month ban on the sale of all vape products statewide. Some vape shops are fighting the governor's temporary ban and have filed lawsuits against the state.

This week, state health officials reported Massachusetts' first vaping-related death. The woman in her 60s from Hampshire County died of a lung injury, officials said.

Related: DPH: First vaping-related death reported in Massachusetts

Hartman has been taking calls from concerned parents who have discovered their children are vaping, and he has already talked to young patients trying to get off e-cigarettes.

On Wednesday, Boston Children's Hospital tweeted nearly identical pictures of an apple juice box and an apple-flavored e-liquid box, side by side. "Vaping is a dangerous habit that's easy for teens to hide," the hospital wrote.

Hartman, too, believes the flavored tobacco is targeted toward teens and preteens.

"Mass. is the eighth-worst state in the country for vaping, and kids vape eight times more than adults," Hartman said. "So the onboarding on this toward addiction is far greater than the offboarding by people trying to get off."

Hartman says vape products, like traditional cigarettes, contain addictive and potentially cancer-causing and substances. He says vaping can worsen asthma, but he fears seeing much more serious health problems in his office.

"Long term, heart disease, lung disease, mental health issues around using nicotine," Hartman said. "How much? We don't know. But it's going to happen."