Reports of illnesses worry lawmakers, but sellers decry rush to judgment
During a meeting Sept. 12, Will County Board members brought up concerns about news reports of people around the country getting sick, and in some cases dying, possibly from using e-cigarettes.
“It would behoove us to stop the sale of these things in the county,” said Minority Leader Mike Fricilone, R-Homer Glen. “It just doesn’t make sense if we just sit here and not do anything hearing about these deaths.”
Kathleen Burke, the county’s director of substance-use initiatives, said during the meeting that news of the cases was “very serious,” and she agreed with Fricilone.
Member Mimi Cowan, D-Naperville, pointed out that just recently, her colleagues decided to keep the legal age to buy tobacco and e-cigarette products in unincorporated parts of the county at 18. She argued that the members may want to revisit that decision to help curb use among young people. Illinois raised the age to buy smoking products to 21 this year.
A representative from the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office told members the county could not legally ban e-cigarette products.
E-cigarettes are devices that produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals.
As of Sept. 12, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 52 cases of respiratory illnesses linked to vaping and one death in the state. The cases came from about 20 counties, including Will County. The median age of those affected was 22 years old.
The IDPH described the rise of e-cigarette use among young people as “an emerging public health threat” on its website.
While cigarette smoking among Illinois high school seniors has decreased significantly over the past decade, between just 2016 and 2018, e-cigarette use in Illinois rose from 18.4% to 26.7% among the same population, a 45% increase, according to the IDPH.
Still, some local sellers of e-cigarette products said they see pushes to ban flavored products, or e-cigarettes entirely, as an overreaction.
Tiffany and Pilar Smith, co-owners of I-80 Vapors in Morris, said the bad press about e-cigarettes has hurt business, and they fear further trouble if the state or federal government does more. Still, when the state raised the age to buy tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21, they made sure to stay within the law. They check and scan customers’ IDs, and don’t allow anyone younger than 21 in their store.
“We go above and beyond to make sure that we’re combating the youth using e-cigarettes,” Tiffany Smith said.
But they said they want the public to know there is a distinction between shops such as theirs, which sells professional and legal products, and the illicit, potentially dangerous products found on the black market.
They said in the past couple of years, the industry has added safety features to products – such as child-proof caps, using plastic instead of glass bottles and placing prominent warning labels and ingredients on the packaging.
Still, they said they understand the concerns.
“I get the fear behind it,” Tiffany Smith added.
But she pointed out that health experts were still trying to figure out what precisely was the cause of the illnesses and deaths.
Alpesh Patel, an epidemiologist with the Will County Health Department, said a large number of the cases reportedly involve people who were not legally permitted to buy e-cigarette products, so it could be difficult to know what exactly they were consuming that made them sick.
John, a smoke-shop manager in Crest Hill who asked his full name not be used, concurred that calls to ban flavored e-cigarettes are an overreaction.
He and the Smiths argued that legal e-cigarette products have been sold for years without severe illnesses or deaths linked to them.
“I have had zero issues with people regarding this,” John said.
Moreover, the sellers in the industry said one of their biggest fears is what would happen for those who turned to e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking conventional cigarettes.
Tiffany Smith said she personally experienced health benefits from converting to e-cigarettes and has heard several other clients share similar experiences. Both Tiffany Smith and John said a ban on flavored e-cigarettes is not the solution.
While local health officials acknowledge that e-cigarettes might not contain the carcinogens found in tobacco products, they said using e-cigarettes can have other risks.
Susan Olenek, the county health department’s executive director, said vaping devices make it easier for smokers to continuously use the product and therefore get more nicotine into their system.
Patel said the nicotine, along with the flavors, makes it easier for another generation to get hooked on smoking.
“You’re basically substituting the one poison for another poison,” he said. “And now there is no stoppage to this.”
For information and resources about e-cigarettes and tobacco, visit willcountyhealth.org.