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Vaping, e-cigarettes under fire at Illinois House committee hearing

Illinois’ top health official said the vaping-related illness sweeping across the nation has “heightened consequences for youth and young adults.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul
AP file photo

Illinois’ chief public health official testified Monday the vast majority of recent vaping-related illnesses in the state have been attributed to the use of marijuana-based products.

IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike told the Illinois House Mental Health Committee that 75% to 80% of the 69 people who have been sickened by a mysterious vaping-related respiratory illness had vaporized THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in cannabis. As of Sept. 19, one of those people had died and 13 other cases were still being investigated.

The news comes just months before Illinois is set to allow recreational use of marijuana, a move that will almost certainly increase the number of pot users within the state.

State Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, who voted against the recent pot legislation, said “it sounds like we need to ban vaping and THC before” the drug is fully legalized next year.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said a ban on THC vaporizers merited “a worthy discussion” but noted he is only pushing a ban on flavored nicotine products for e-cigarettes. Both Raoul and Ezike claimed those products are stoking the crisis and attracting younger users.

However, Raoul said the vaping problem is “more comprehensive than that.”

As a result, he said his office is in the midst of a wide-ranging investigation of the vaping industry, including probes of both legitimate and bootleg vaping products, as well as how those products are produced and promoted.

“[They] are marketed as products to reduce the reliance on smoking. With youth in particular, it’s the other way around,” Raoul said.

Three teens who recently interned for state Rep. Deb Conroy, D-Villa Park, chair of the committee, gave voice to the scope of the youth vaping problem and what they’ve seen in the halls and bathrooms of their suburban schools.

“Vape culture is dangerous,” said Arsima Araya, a junior at Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream. Araya noted that vaporizer use has become competitive as kids attempt to master the latest “tricks” and finish nicotine “pods” quickest.

“This is a nationwide epidemic,” she said.

Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the Chicago-based American Lung Association, issued a blunt response to the crisis as he testified alongside fellow health advocates.

“No one should use e-cigarettes, period,” Wimmer said.

In addition to calling for increased federal regulation, Wimmer also urged local authorities to take steps to respond to the vape-related health crisis, including adding e-cigarettes to the Smoke Free Illinois Act, taxing those products at the same rate as tobacco products and ending the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and President Donald Trump have both endorsed bans on flavored vaping products in recent weeks, but pro-vaping advocates argued that bans could impact small business owners.

Rick Ussrey, of Northbrook, was among a group of e-cigarette enthusiasts who filled a room outside the packed hearing. Ussrey, who used a nicotine vaporizer to quit smoking 12 years ago, now owns RPM Vape in Vernon Hills, which draws 81% of its sales from flavored vape products, he said.

Ussrey said a ban on those products “would warrant the immediate closure and liquidation of my whole company” and leave him and six others without a job.

Vicki Vasconcellos, president of the Smoke Free Alternatives Coalition of Illinois, a trade group that represents vape shops, testified that a crackdown could have a major economic impact on the state and doesn’t address the alleged primary cause of the health crisis — marijuana vaping. She warned that increased regulation on nicotine vape products could push users to turn to the illicit market or push them to pick up smoking again.

While Vasconcellos said her group is also concerned about the rise of youth vaping, she claimed flavored vaping products “play an important role” in former addicts quitting smoking. Other pro-vape panelists also testified that the goal of the industry is to offer a smoking cessation option.

Vasconcellos, who was a smoker for more than three decades, said she vapes peach and pomegranate nicotine and doesn’t want to have to turn to tobacco-flavored products, which could trigger connections to her past addiction.