Just weeks after being removed from his post by the Trump administration, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy returned to old stomping grounds Thursday at Miami Palmetto Senior High School in Pinecrest.
A 1994 graduate of the school and class valedictorian, he said he had a promise to keep.
Murthy had been invited by Shelby Loeb, a high school senior who did research on electronic cigarettes — a subject he says is dear to him.
“Regardless of my position and if I’m in government or not, I still care deeply about improving public health in our government. I’m going to continue to be involved,” he said. “I was very impressed and just really proud of what Shelby was doing. I couldn’t miss out on making sure that the message she’s trying to bring to students is one that can be amplified.”
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Loeb caught Murthy’s attention several months ago. She emailed him a copy of her school project on electronic cigarettes that showed very similar findings to the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which revealed that the majority of youth aren’t aware of the dangers of e-cigarette use and see them as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
The surgeon general — who during his tenure paid close attention to the subject — published a report on electronic cigarettes in December.
Murthy’s report showed that e-cigarette use among U.S. youth and young adults has increased considerably in recent years, growing an astounding 900 percent among high school students from 2011 to 2015. According to the study, the products are now the most commonly used form of tobacco among youth in the U.S., surpassing cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and hookahs.
Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which can cause addiction and can harm the developing adolescent brain, Murthy explained to hundreds of high school students during a Q & A session Thursday in the school auditorium.
“Being a person who has growing up in a generation where much information is available to make educated choices, I wondered about the beliefs and usage patterns of e-cigarettes in high school students,” Loeb told the Miami Herald. “That’s when I decided to reach out to Dr. Murthy.
“He responded in January saying he was interested in coming to speak at our school soon, but then he got removed from the office by Trump. We didn’t hear from him again so we really thought he wasn’t coming. To our surprise, he contacted the school last week and said he was going to come speak.”
As part of her research project, Loeb, along with help from the school’s science department, ultimately created a e-cigarette research plan, which called for a school-wide survey. The 18-year-old surveyed 296 students of different ages, grades, and course levels.
Her results were eye-opening, she said: The majority of those surveyed had smoked electronic cigarettes anywhere on one to five days within a 30-day period. The findings were similar to the 2014 National Youth Tobacco survey.
Murthy’s Q & A session at his alma mater was a pit stop during his time in Miami. The former “nation’s doctor” was the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s 59th annual Silver Knight awards, a ceremony that honors the community’s brightest high school seniors. Murthy too was a Silver Knight winner when he was a student.
But his visit to his school wasn’t all business. Murthy walked down memory lane with former teachers, hummed to the school’s anthem and even jumped off stage to take a photo with some old cronies.
One of his most memorable times: blowing bubbles in class, Murthy told a school administrator. Laughter filled the room.
“I taught him everything he knows,” joked Lynn Evans, who was his honors anatomy teacher. “No, on a serious note, I knew when he was in my classroom that he was destined for greatness just because of the person that he was.
Murthy had nearly two years left on his four-year term as surgeon general when he was asked to resign by President Donald Trump, and then relieved of his duties. He was appointed by former president Barack Obama.
“The timing was very surprising,” Murthy told the Miami Herald. “I’m going to continue to be involved in efforts to protect kids from substances including tobacco and I want to continue supporting Palmetto [High] and my community.”