Champaign council to study rise in e-cigarette use among youths

Champaign council to study rise in e-cigarette use among youths

CHAMPAIGN — Last month, the U.S. surgeon general declared e-cigarette use among youth a national epidemic.

Dr. Jerome Adams won't get any argument from Champaign city council member and Centennial High teacher Greg Stock.

"I think it's probably more rampant than even tobacco use at this point by a long shot," Stock said. "I see kids out in front of the building, and we've seen kids vaping in classrooms and in the bathroom.

"And I think part of this is that parents and staff members don't really know much about it."

Tuesday night, the Champaign City Council will devote a study session to the topic, which could lead to a crackdown similar to ones already enacted in two dozen other Illinois municipalities.

Twenty-four have put in place ordinances that regulate vapes, and 27 have joined the nationwide "Tobacco 21" campaign to raise the minimum purchasing age from 18, according to a report prepared by Champaign city staff in advance of Tuesday's meeting.

The city of Naperville, for one, requires retailers to purchase a $200 license every year to sell vapes in addition to prohibiting vaping indoors.

And Chicago now forbids the sale of vapes to anyone under the age of 21 and recently raised its city taxes for vapes and liquid nicotine.

For Stock, who first requested city staff study vaping regulations last July, raising the age to 21 on a city level — to "get it out of the schools" — is a no-brainer. But he also wants more people to become better informed about what he fears could become a major health crisis.

FDA: 3.6 million youths use e-cigs

City staff say action by the council could mean "cleaner indoor air" and discourage youth use.

It would also align with the city's smoke-free ordinance, staff said, which "may impact patronage" in bars and restaurants that currently allow vaping.

It's the question of whether the council will seek to heighten regulations in public spaces that has some local vape shop owners perplexed.

Regulations, taxes and health notices are just some of the ways states and the federal government have sought to regulate the vape industry, which is controlled primarily by Juul Labs.

Adding to those regulations would cripple local vape shops while ignoring bigger problems and lack of enforcement of already strict laws, said Austin Palmer, owner of Champaign's Steam Industries Vape Lounge.

Palmer said often "closed loop" vapes like Juuls, and similar cartridge-based knockoffs, are lumped into the same category as modifiable versions, which make it easier to control nicotine levels.

Over the past year, the Federal Drug Administration has cracked down on manufacturers of flavored e-cigarettes after finding that more than 3.6 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2017.

But last fall, Juul knockoffs flooded the market anyway, and started showing up at convenience stores and vape shops around the country.

"The more regulations that we get isn't going to change anything," Palmer said. "What they need to go after is closed loop systems that they classify as vaping, but that's fake tobacco with excess amounts of nicotine. It's already illegal to sell that stuff, but companies still continue to produce things they know they shouldn't produce."

Owner: Data 'not reliable'

Palmer said he isn't against regulating vape products and added that it would force out some businesses that skirt the law.

"Some of the retailers you're going to hurt, some need to get hurt because we know they're selling to kids over the counter," Palmer said. "But at the same time, the large majority of it is online anyway, which isn't well-regulated and anyone can buy anything on there."

When it comes to recent data on vape use by young people, the owner of Champaign's Stardust Vapes and Glass isn't convinced. "Their data is not reliable," Michael Ballerini said. "This industry is only 10 years old; it was the Wild West before. Three years ago, we didn't have to card people. There's not enough data from the FDA that reliably shows what's happening."

Ultimately, Ballerini added, putting in a $200 annual license fee or raising taxes won't hurt his bottom line or force him to jack up prices.

"As the industry grows, you're going to have more regulation," he said. "A couple hundred bucks more a year is not a big deal."