By Robbie Owens

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Dallas County Health officials are investigating four new cases of severe lung disease with suspected connections to vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes.

That adds to the 17 patients that have been previously hospitalized in the county.​

“We have previously healthy teenagers and young adults that are now intubated and on ventilators,” said Dr. Philip Huang, Director, Dallas County Health & Human Services in a planned briefing to County Commissioners. “I mean severe illness, it’s very concerning.”​

Initially marketed as a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes and a way to help smokers quit,  what experts now know is that the flavored nicotine was, instead, cultivating a new market. ​

“Kids are sucking on these things constantly and you think about that exposure,” said Dr. Huang.

According to Dr. Huang, nationally, experts are tracking a 78% increase in e-cigarette use among high school students in just one year, between 2017 and 2018.

e-cigarettes (CBS 11)

An estimated 3.6 million teens now vape.​

“That’s the scary part,” says Dr. Stephen Mueller, a pulmonologist with Methodist Health System in Dallas. “And more importantly, younger people who had never smoked or who thought that vaping was totally safe: vaping has never been safe. For anyone.”​

Dr. Mueller said with hundreds sickened across the country, he is now telling adults and teens to stop vaping– regardless of why they started.​

“Our primary directive, if you will, is do no harm,” said Dr. Mueller. “We want to make sure we’re not harming patients in any way…because we’re not sure of exactly where they’re buying things.” ​

Dr. Mueller said there are just too many unanswered questions, and he is also concerned the impact of vaping on young lungs– and young brains, that are still developing. “It gets them hooked a lot faster.”​

In addressing Dallas County Commissioners, Dr. Wong also characterized the flavored e-cigarettes as creating a “new generation” addicted to nicotine.

“Flavors like gummy bear and bubble gum… this is part of a marketing strategy that is appealing to kids.”​

Following the briefing, Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Elba Garcia called the e-cigarette marketing to young people “criminal,” and compared the misleading marketing of the products to the launch of the opioid epidemic.​

“We know now what is going on with e-cigarettes,” said Dr. Garcia, a family dentist. “We know now what this marketing campaign is after. It’s only about money. They don’t care about health, they don’t care about human life. When we know what we’ve seen in the opioid epidemic. The best way to start is banning it, now.”​