Chicago retailers told to post warnings about dangers of cigarette substitutes

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Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita testifies before the City Council’s License Committee Wednesday on the need for warning signs to alert young people to the risks of cigars, cigarillos, e-cigarettes and other non-tobacco products. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

As the mother of a 15-year-old, Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita knows firsthand how oblivious teenagers can be about the health risks posed by tobacco products other than cigarettes.

She lectures her son constantly about those dangers. His friends get an earful, too, embarrassing as that might be.

But not every teenager in Chicago has a mom who’s a public health administrator. Those teenagers need other kinds of warnings and that’s what they’re going to get.

The City Council’s License Committee on Wednesday approved an ordinance championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It requires posting warning signs about the health risks posed by e-cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos, smokeless tobacco and other tobacco products other than cigarettes “somewhere visible at each public entrance” to all tobacco dealers.

The signs would be designed by the Department of Public Health and could be downloaded from its website to make it easier for businesses to comply.

They would include a phone number users can call for help kicking the tobacco habit.

Morita doesn’t have those signs posted in her home. She doesn’t need them.

“My daughter and my son have heard from me any number of times about HIV prevention, gonorrhea-chlamydia prevention, tobacco prevention. They hear about every public health issue there is,” Morita said.

“This is an emerging problem that my son is well aware of. He understands the risks. And when his friends come marching in the door, I share that information with them as well. They roll their eyeballs at me every day when I say these things. But it’s my job to make sure kids are well equipped with this information so they can make smart, informed decisions. And right now, they’re not informed.”

Emanuel talks about creating a “smoke-free generation” in Chicago and has made strides toward that ambitious goal with a steady string of anti-smoking ordinances.

Teen smoking has dropped from 13.6 percent when the mayor took office in 2011 to 6 percent today.

But Morita noted Chicago high school students have a higher rate of using e-cigarettes (6.2 percent) and cigars and cigarillos (7.7 percent).

“Kids have the sense that cigars, cigarillos, e-cigarettes, the flavored tobacco is less dangerous and safe to use. And we can’t have them believing that. If they understand the risks, they’re much less likely to do that,” Morita said.

“We can’t stand idly by while tobacco companies lure a new generation of youth with novel products and ever-changing marketing practices.”

Under questioning from Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), Morita said the warnings signs also would be required at vaping shops.

She urged parents to be on the look-out for a “concealable” product she called the latest vaping trend among teenagers.

“There are the larger hookah-type of products. But, there’s also really small products called `jewels’ or `fixes’ that are tiny. They’re like the size of a flash drive. Kids can carry them around easily. They can hide them. There’s reports about kids using them in school settings because people don’t see them,” Morita said.

Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) practically begged Morita to do more to educate CPS students in middle school and high school, who may be oblivious to the dangers.

“The degree of ignorance among the student population … is immense. They think it’s a joke. They have bought into this mistaken notion [non-cigarette products] are less harmful or not harmful at all,” Maldonado said.

After the meeting, Morita was asked why e-cigarette use is rising among teens despite Chicago raising its smoking age to 21 for all tobacco products. Does that mean the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection needs to do a better job of enforcement?

“We are working really closely with [that department] on this because it’s their job to enforce this law. Enforcement is a key piece. But, I also feel like public information needs to be out there,” she said.

The mayor’s ordinance would also close a legal loophole that has allowed Big Tobacco to distribute free samples at “qualified adult facilities.” But that provision is likely to have limited impact, since federal law already prohibits much of the distribution of free samples that Big Tobacco has used to lure young people into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

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