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Millions watch U of M doctor tell teens not to vape

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A woman stands with her arms crossed.
Dr. Rose Marie Leslie stands for a portrait at MPR in St. Paul on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A University of Minnesota medical school resident is taking her message about the dangers of vaping to where teens may be most likely to see it — on the TikTok video-based social media app.

Dr. Rose Marie Leslie, a Minneapolis family practice physician, has managed to get nearly 200,000 followers of her brief, sometimes serious and sometimes silly, video insights into medicine and being a doctor. She's now internet famous for her frank discussion of the dangers of vaping. 

Leslie talked with MPR News reporter Tim Nelson.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tim Nelson: Why use TikTok to talk about vaping?

Dr. Rose Marie Leslie: It's really a place where people have fun. They're creative, they can show dances or come up with skits. And I found that it was a way for me to use visual tools and comedy in health education.

Nelson: Then, of course, a couple of weeks ago you posted that video of a chest X-ray of a patient suffering from a vaping-related illness. Now nearly four million people have watched it. What happened?

Dr. Leslie: There was an image shared to the media that was spread around of somebody who has this new disease associated with vaping and e-cigarettes. I looked at it and I thought, you know somebody with an untrained medical eye could easily appreciate the difference between this X-ray and a normal X-ray. And I thought that image was just so striking that I wanted to make sure that I shared it with everyone on TikTok.

Nelson: You talk a lot about vaping. What's so bad about it?

Dr. Leslie: I think the big thing that we're seeing right now and why there's so much attention in the media about vaping is this disease, this very severe lung injury is associated with vaping and e-cigarette products.

Nelson: What other reactions have you had? 

Dr. Leslie: You know I have been getting a lot of really positive responses. I've had people reach out to me and say, “I’ve decided to quit because I've seen your videos.” Of course, anytime you give health information and explain the risks about a habit that's perceived as cool, especially to adolescents, they can become harsh critics. But the risks still do exist. And as long as the risks exist, I'm going to keep delivering this information.

Nelson: You have a clinic practice. Give me a sense of how big a deal vaping is to the patients you see every day.

Dr. Leslie: I do see it a lot, especially in adolescents and young adults. It's extremely common and it's hard to pick up on. Physicians and providers, in general, are focused on asking, “Do you smoke cigarettes” or “Do you chew?” And we need to be really integrating the questions, “Do you vape or use e-cigarettes?” because they are a public health risk.