As state lawmakers wait on Gov. Phil Murphy to decide whether New Jersey will ban the sale of all flavored vaping products, a county in the throws of a "youth vaping epidemic" has created a special task force devoted to implementing a coordinated response to the issue.

The Escape the Vape Taskforce, established by the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office, aims to provide the community with a multi-pronged approach to addressing the issue — education, policy change, and cessation.

"The Taskforce acknowledges and understands the importance of assisting schools in reviewing tobacco policies and connecting young people with appropriate cessation resources," said a press release on the initiative.

"The creation of this Taskforce is a direct response to the youth vaping epidemic in Ocean County," Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer said. "Collectively, we were all being inundated with requests to come out and speak to various groups about vaping. As we were all trying to get out there and educate the public, it became very apparent that we were overlapping in some communities."

With the countywide task force in place, he said, the anti-vape message will be streamlined and experts can reach a wider audience.

Task force partners have trained thousands of individuals on the dangers and risks of vaping. The group will run a series of Train-the-Trainer sessions for folks in the community who'd like to better understand the vaping epidemic and pass the message along. The first event will occur on Friday, Jan. 24 at St. Luke's Church in Toms River.

"We'll do one a month and try to train as many people as possible," Billhimer said.

According to the Department of Health, New Jersey has experienced 56 confirmed cases, 47 probable cases and one death linked to a nationwide outbreak of vaping-related illnesses. The 2019 Monitoring the Future Survey found that nationally, nearly 10% of eighth-graders had vaped nicotine in the past 30 days, along with 20% of 10th-graders and 25.5% of 12th-graders.

New Jersey lawmakers this week passed legislation to prohibit flavored e-cigarette products, which they say are meant to attract and hook young people. The measure heads to Gov. Murphy's desk for action.

Task force partners include RWJ Barnabas Health Institute for Prevention and Recovery, the DART Prevention Coalition, Community Medical Center, Deborah Heart and Lung Center, Ocean County Department of Human Services, Ocean County Youth Service Commission, Ocean County Health Department, Ocean County Branch of the Association of Student Assistance Professionals, and the Ocean County Association of School Administrators.

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