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Moreno and medical experts make the case for taxing e-cigarettes

Nearly two years ago, e-cigarette users joined the ostracized gauntlet of smokers huddled outside Chicago restaurants, bars and buildings.

The City Council demanded it by banning e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited, moving them behind the counter of retail stores and snuffing out sales to minors.

On Thursday, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) assembled a group of medical experts to make the public case for his $1 million plan to tax e-cigarettes at a rate of $1.25 per container of liquid and 25 cents for each milliliter refill.

Their goal is to stop Big Tobacco from using a product that has “stormed onto the market,” as Moreno put it, to “re-normalize” smoking, particularly among young people.

“We don’t want to become a city of vapers and just switch from cigarettes to vaping — especially when it comes to our youth,” Moreno said.

Carol Southard, a nurse specializing in tobacco treatment at Northwestern Medicine, said taxing works because young people are more price-sensitive than adults.

“When we started taxing cigarettes across the country, youth use went down. So the sooner we start taxing electronic cigarettes, the better because electronic cigarettes have trended [upward] like nothing else I’ve seen in my 30 years of doing this,” Southard said.

“One in six people in this country still smokes. If you live below the poverty line, it’s one in four. We have not solved the problem. We’ve shoved it aside. And I am very concerned that electronic cigarettes are going to re-introduce normalizing using an aerated tobacco product. If taxing electronic cigarettes helps deter youth from trying it, Chicago should be the first city to take the lead on that.”

Two years ago, Emanuel’s proposal to banish e-cigarette smokers and snuff out sales to minors ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from smokers and former smokers in the City Council who have used e-cigarettes to kick the deadly habit.

“I wouldn’t wish a nicotine addiction on my worst enemy. But I can tell you tobacco addiction kills people, and I’m looking for any possible product to get away from tobacco,” downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said then.

“You lose me when you want to treat a product many people are using as an alternative to quit just like the product they want to get away from. This would place vaper users on the curb right next to the folks smoking. That, to me, does not make a lot of sense.”

Then-Ald. Rey Colon (35th) said on that day that he bought an e-cigarette and hadn’t smoked since.

“I put my four packs of Camels in my humidor and there they sat. For me, it’s worked,” he said.

Colon then took aim at Emanuel, who has framed the fight against e-cigarettes as a good-vs.-evil battle to protect Chicago’s children. That’s the same argument the mayor used to champion speed cameras and school closings.

“We keep using children as an excuse to pass any ordinance we want to pass, because who can deny the children? And it bugs me,” Colon said.

After the vote, Emanuel argued from the rostrum that the Food and Drug Administration “leads from behind” and he’s not about to wait for that federal bureaucracy to lead when it comes to protecting the health of Chicago’s children.

“The children of Chicago should not be figured in the bottom line of the tobacco companies,” the mayor said then.

On Thursday, Southard fired back at those who claim that the jury is out on e-cigarettes and their risk to public health.

“I’ve been in the cessation field for 30 years. I’m for anything that helps. But when I first heard about these, I knew they couldn’t just be nicotine. Nicotine is so much of an irritant to the respiratory tract and the gastrointestinal system, hard-core smokers couldn’t use an electronic cigarette if it was just nicotine,” Southard said.

“Even before the science came in, I knew that there were going to be other products in electronic cigarettes — and indeed there are: formaldehyde, there’s toxins. There’s carcinogens to neutralize the irritating effect of nicotine. Yes, it’s harm reduction. They’re not as dangerous as cigarettes. Nothing is. But I would never feel comfortable encouraging someone to use something that I know is harmful.”

It might already be too late to stop the stampede toward e-cigarettes, according to results of 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey. It showed that e-cigarette use among high school students nearly tripled in just one year — from 4.5 percent and 660,000 students in 2013 to 13.4 percent and 2 million students in 2014.

The survey defined “use” as at least one e-cigarette in the previous 30 days.