How vaping and the coronavirus highlight the challenges in public health messaging
Sarah Lande is a 17 year-old rising high school senior in Los Angeles researching vaping and other public health issues
June 30, 2020
As part of an independent study course, I have been researching the teen vaping epidemic and ways to reverse this growing problem. This work coupled with the coronavirus pandemic prompted me to think about the critical role of public health officials. Public health leaders have the difficult task of communicating inconvenient (albeit science based) truths to audiences who would often rather remain in the dark. Whether the message is about the dangers of vaping or advice about avoiding crowded indoor spaces without a mask, people are reluctant to change their behavior. With respect to vaping, I believe the truth about the risks should be communicated teen to teen and I want to be the teen who delivers the message. But, wait…do I want to be the teen messenger?
If I am being honest, even though I am convinced that vaping is dangerous, taking on the role of public health advocate for an audience of my peers is daunting. Before the pandemic, my parents urged me to present my research at a school-wide assembly, but I rolled my eyes and refused, knowing that this would be social-suicide. I convinced them (and myself) that social media would be more effective, but I was really drawn to it because it offers a more anonymous platform where I could disseminate the information with less personal risk.
With the best of intentions and high hopes of creating a movement that would change teen behavior, I posted fact based messages warning teens that vaping could harm their hearts, lungs and brains and was tragically addicting. I quickly learned that public health messages are often met with hostility. Within minutes of my first Instagram post, a boy responded by blowing a vape cloud right back at me. Although there has been some positive feedback, my TikToks have also been mocked and ridiculed introducing me to the same challenges that public health leaders are experiencing today in connection with the coronavirus. Why is it so hard to communicate about the issues of public health? My thesis is that it must be the right message from the right messenger delivered from the right platform. However, like all good plans, it’s all about the execution.
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There is no shortage of shocking social media posts, YouTube videos, P.S.A.s and full scale ad campaigns like “The Real Cost” warning teens about the risks of vaping. But despite these public health efforts, teens have not “gotten the message”. In a recent study I co-authored, we concluded that while the contact of adolescents with e-cigarettes users is extensive, their actual knowledge of the harmful effects remains inadequate. The epidemic continues to grow because it’s hard to deliver the right message, from the right messenger on the right platform. This challenge is clearly illustrated by the fact that YouTube videos and memes that make fun of public health messages are more popular than the original.
My research has focused on finding new and better ways to deliver public health content to teens including a Virtual Reality game. Ironically, the global pandemic that interrupted my research and anti-vaping campaign, is the ultimate example highlighting the importance of effective public health messaging. While there have been some notable leaders who effectively educated the public about the coronavirus with clarity, humility and empathy, there have been too many instances where the messages from public officials at every level of government including President Trump have been misleading, confusing and politicized. Simple ideas that could save lives such as the importance of wearing masks have become fraught with politics, linked to the culture war, and have confused and divided the public.
The distrust of science and animosity toward public health officials has even resulted in local and state public health leaders being harassed, insulted and even receiving death threats. In Los Angeles, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported that someone suggested she be shot during a recent Facebook Live briefing. While nobody enjoys social distancing or wearing a mask, this level of resistance is unacceptable. The public needs to be reminded especially during a global health crisis of the adage, don’t shoot the messenger…literally.
Public health messaging is hard, and my own struggles to combat the teen vaping epidemic are part of the larger issue of conveying inconvenient truths in a manner that leads to positive change. The message itself, the messenger, and the way it is communicated is vital. Do I want to be the teen messenger who educates my peers about vaping? These unique times coupled with the importance of the work to be done demands that my answer is yes. But please, don’t shoot!