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Local News

In Joliet, Chicago area, vaping's popularity grows, but regulators watching

Joliet vape retailer says he offers a healthy option for smokers

JOLIET – It can get foggy at Mi Vape Co.

But don’t call it smoky.

“If this were smoke, we’d all be dead,” laughed co-owner Tony Jirgis.

The customers at the Joliet store weren’t smoking. They were vaping.

To vape, a user will pull from a mouthpiece at the top of an electronic cigarette, which vaporizes nicotine, according to the American Vaping Association. E-cigarettes do not have the carcinogenic impact of smoking tobacco.

The closest resemblance to smoking, Jirgis said, is that the typical customer is an ex-smoker who has opted for vaping as a healthier way to ingest nicotine. A sign at the front door of the Jefferson Street store warns customers that no smoking is allowed within 15 feet of the entrance.

Jirgis, a smoker for half of his 32 years, testifies to the change he experienced after the switch to vaping.

“You get your scent back. You get your taste buds back. You wake up, and you’re not tired all the time,” Jirgis said.

He tells stories of a truck drivers, Marlboro red smokers, and an uncle who kicked the smoking habit after switching to vaping.

But regulators and some taxing bodies are taking a look at the rapidly growing use of electronic cigarettes, considering the health impact of vaping, and looking to impose the kind of taxes placed on tobacco.

Regulation debate

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan three weeks ago joined attorneys generals from 33 states calling for tighter federal regulations over electronic cigarettes to protect children and young adults from nicotine addiction.

Madigan’s office, in a news release, urged action by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calling for child-resistant packaging and warning labels “similar to the labels on other tobacco products.” Such regulations already exist in Illinois.

“Nicotine is harmful no matter how it is consumed,” Madigan said in a statement, “and e-cigarettes should come with warnings about its dangers.”

Regulators, however, label it a tobacco product and are increasingly looking to regulate it like tobacco.

It’s hard to overlook that the liquefied nicotine at Mi Vape Co. has nicotine, even though everyone calls it “juice.” Flavors vary, from watermelon to barbecue chicken.

Juice comes in nicotine levels of 0, 3, 6 or 12 milligrams, depending on how much nicotine the customer wants.

Customer Tyler Breland from Chicago calculates his nicotine intake.

“I was smoking five to six cigarettes a day,” Breland said. “At my current level, I figured I’d have to be constantly vaping at my house for an hour to get one cigarette.”

Breland said he comes all the way from Chicago to Mi Vape Co.

“They have a great shop,” he said. “The guys are cool, and they have a great juice line.”

If Chicago passes a proposed tax on electronic cigarettes, Breland said, he may come to Joliet more frequently for his juice.

That tax would add $7.50 to a 30 milliliter jar of liquefied nicotine, which typically sells for between $15 and $22, said Gregory Colby, president of the American Vaping Association.

Colby was in Chicago on Wednesday to testify against the tax when news came out that Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle had proposed a county tax on e-cigarettes at 20 cents a milliliter.

“There are two dozen vapor retail specialty stores in Chicago,” Colby said. “This tax is going to stop those stores from helping smokers quit, and it may put them out of business.”

Colby said the tax is falsely sold as a protection for young people. He argues that teens who take up vaping are giving up smoking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a study in April that states use of e-cigarettes among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.

Hoping to break habit

Many vaping retailers, including Jirgis and his cousin, Joe Jirjees, see themselves as helping people break the smoking habit.

Jirjees, a partner at Mi Vape Co., said he wanted to open a store that would help people new to vaping understand the product lines, which can be confusing and expensive. Battery operated devices used to inhale liquefied nicotine can cost anywhere from $10 to more than $100.

Jirjees said he found retailers continually trying to up-sell him when he shopped for products.

“We wanted to give the community what they should get from a vape shop,” Jirjees said. “You want to get the customer to know what they’re buying. We want them to be comfortable.”

New retailers such as Mi Vape Co., which opened in May, are making the business increasingly competitive. Many vape stores are regional chains with multiple stores in the Chicago area. Tobacco stores and even gas stations are adding e-cigarettes to their inventories.

Regulators, including state and local governments, still are trying to figure out whether they should do anything about the product.

Vic Reato, spokesman for the Will County Health Department, said some but not all local school districts have policies prohibiting e-cigarettes on campus. Municipalities in the county also are exploring ordinances to ban their use in public places, he said.

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