State’s vaping problems hit close to home
By JORDAN GRUCZA
Coal Country Times Reporter
Like many young people who vape, Reese Marshall, a 22-year-old resident of Gillespie, thought vaping devices were a safe alternative to smoking, not suspecting that flavored vape liquids, from unofficial sources, had the ability to harm her.
Marshall, a Class of 2016 graduate of Gillespie High School, appeared on a recent episode of CBS’s “Dr. Phil” to explain the symptoms that arose after she was exposed to harmful black market vaping products. The episode was one of many exposés in the media this year about the growing epidemic of vaping-related illnesses.
After trying cigarettes for a couple of months, Marshall switched to vaping, and had been doing it every day since she was 20. On Aug. 20 of this year, the symptoms came on fast. Marshall’s lungs had collapsed and she was on the ventilator for three days. The St. Francis Hospital staff in Litchfield diagnosed her with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs when exposed to dust, smoke, chemicals or other irritants in the air.
“I was using a JUUL,” Marshall said. “I was also using a vaping device that I used with vaping cartridges that I bought from friends. The brand I used was TKO Vapes and that’s when the symptoms started.”
Since then, Marshall has to use a device called a spirometer every day and visit a pulmonologist once a month. The repercussions of using TKO Vapes will be with her for the rest of her life.
It’s been a bad year for users and sellers of vaping devices, and the state of Illinois has been at the forefront of the vaping health scandal. The states of Illinois and Wisconsin first began reporting strange cases of lung illness in April of 2019, generally in young people. The Center for Disease Control quickly correlated the cases with the patients’ vaping habits.
These cases are now referred to as EVALI, or e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury cases. More than 9 million people vape in the United States, as cited in a recent CDC report. As of Nov. 20, there have been 2,290 cases of lung illness associated with vaping products, with 34 deaths associated with EVALI as of Oct. 22.
In response to the epidemic, several states like Michigan and New York have proposed and even passed legislation for a “flavor ban,” with their reasoning being that fruit flavors have been drawing children into using an allegedly dangerous tobacco product, although legislators are now finding themselves in a tug-of-war. In November, the CDC reversed their statement that all vaping products are to blame for EVALI cases, and that recent evidence suggests that a substance called vitamin E acetate is to blame, which has been used in black market THC vape liquids as a thickener.
Now instead of giving into what may be a media panic, states like New York are now waiting for more evidence to come in before they pass a flavor ban.
Bills aimed at a flavor ban in Illinois seem to have stalled, although Gov. J.B. Pritzker is strongly in favor of the ban.
Small business owners who depend on the sales of vaping products are grateful for the lull in legislation and hope to get the word out to the public about how helpful they believe vaping products actually are. Freedom Vapes of Carlinville employee Josh McDaniels has researched the vaping ban extensively and recently had testimonies posted in the storefront window from customers who vouch that flavored vaping products helped them quit smoking combustible cigarettes entirely.
“One thing the signs show is that it’s not just the kids who like the flavors,” McDaniels said. “Ninety percent of my customers in here don’t vape tobacco flavors.
McDaniels said that the real problem lies in products like JUUL, which he states are a markedly different product than standard vaping devices.
“JUUL pods have 50 milligrams of nicotine,” McDaniels said. “A cigarette has 12. Why anyone needs 50 milligrams is beyond me.”
McDaniels also points out that JUUL devices are easily concealable in the palm of the user’s hand and doesn’t leave a visible vapor in the air, which is attractive to students younger than 21 who want to use the devices in class. Between this and the high dose of nicotine, McDaniels believes this to be a gateway to combustible cigarettes for children.
Becky Hatlee, health program coordinator at the Macoupin County Health Department, has a major stake in this argument. Hatlee regularly hosts tobacco-related programs for students in Macoupin County.
“I think Josh has an interesting take on this,” Hatlee said in response to McDaniels’ comments. “I think companies like JUUL are trying to appeal to kids because cigarette smoking among teens is at its lowest point ever in history. I do know that research shows that people who begin smoking before the age of 18 are more likely to become lifelong smokers. So with this huge decline we see in kids who smoke cigarettes, in my opinion, the big companies are moving toward e-cigarettes because it’s the new thing. They have to move toward that.”
As of September, JUUL has stopped selling non-tobacco, non-menthol-based flavors (mango, creme, fruit, and cucumber) in the U.S. In November, they no longer sold mint JUUL pods online and ceased accepting orders for them from retailers.
“They have menthol on their website, classic tobacco and Virginia tobacco,” Hatlee said. “The real issue we’re having is that kids are buying black market pods. Not only are they buying the nicotine pods on the black market but also the ones with THC oil in them. That’s where the vitamin-E acetate comes in. It’s used as a thickening agent to make it last longer. In the majority of medical cases with lung injuries, they’re finding that vitamin-E acetate.
“The JUUL is a very simple device. It has a rechargeable battery, a heating coil and the nicotine pod. That’s really all it has. It’s really pervasive in our schools.
“A JUUL is technically called an e-cigarettes, although students don’t say this in schools because the attitudes toward cigarettes among young people have changed. Cigarettes just aren’t cool anymore. When I talk to the students, they are very transparent with me. They say cigarette smoking is out, and I don’t think it’s a case of me being naive. The kids who smoke cigarettes aren’t afraid to raise their hands.”
Hatlee emphasized that the JUUL is just one device among many that pose a threat to young people.
“There are so many more devices available for online purchase. They are now making hoodie sweatshirts, and the tie cords are actual vape devices. It fits inside of the sweatshirt and the wearer can covertly use the vaping device. They’re also making devices that look like apple watches.”
Hatlee conceded that this seems to be a marketing ploy for children.
“If I were a vaper, I wouldn’t walk around with a hoodie and try to hide what I’m doing.”
Hatlee confirmed that she believes a flavor ban would help curb sales among youth. As far as a compromise in legislation which only allowed vape shops to sell flavored liquids, Hatlee was skeptical.
“I do think it would help, but I also think we’re always going to have underground manufacturers. The flavors, when they first came out, proved to be wildly popular. Now that you can get anything on the internet, there will always be these underground sales.
“The thing is, there’s no way to know what you’re getting when you buy vaping products,” Hatlee said. “It’s not FDA-regulated.”
Marshall’s story emphasizes her point.
“If anyone is like I was, they didn’t look at all the ingredients in the vape juices before using it,” Marshall said. “Most people don’t.”
McDaniels believes the opposite of Hatlee regarding the vaping black market and its relationship to children.
“The thing about Tobacco 21 is that it’s not illegal for people under 21 to possess it,” McDaniels said. “A flavor ban is the worst possible thing. All it’s going to do is open up a bigger black market than what we already have. They think they got people getting sick now off the black market? It’s going to get 10 times worse if you pass a flavor ban.”
McDaniels states that vape store owners are vehemently against any association with black market THC products, the most famous of which is Dank Vapes, a brand label unattached to a legitimate company whose name anyone can use. He also voices skepticism about the vaping scare in general, citing about a decade’s worth of vaping before black market THC products rose to prominence, without any EVALI cases reported.
“We’ve fought this ban for the last two months,” McDaniels said. “I’ve sent tweets to Trump, I’ve sent tweets to the governor of Illinois, I’ve called the White House switchboard. I’ve done everything I can possibly do. The White House petition to stop the flavor ban needed 100,000 signatures and it’s already double that.”
Gas stations will likely weather the storm of this mass vaping panic. The same cannot be said for small business owners. For the month of September, McDaniels stated that sales had plummeted 40 percent because of the bad press vape products had been receiving.
“It wasn’t just us,” McDaniels said. “3D Vapes in East Alton took a hit. Our distributors took a hit because people weren’t buying. Every week since then, sales keep getting better, and I 100 percent believe we took that hit in sales because the CDC released those statements. I had people come in all the time who special-ordered house juice, then I didn’t see them for a while, and I think it was because they were scared.”
That said, a vaping ban is likely not going to cause small business to shut down their stores overnight.
“In Michigan, when the governor there passed their flavor ban, they found a loophole,” McDaniels said. “Their ban was on flavored nicotine vape juices. It didn’t say anything about zero milligram. So they could sell that zero milligram and then they just sell separate nicotine packs. There’s nothing lawmakers can do about that.”
This may beg the question of lawmakers putting a ban on nicotine packs, but McDaniels states that neither he nor his fellow vendors have heard anything about it.
“Most of our customers buy fruit flavors,” McDaniels said. “Most people don’t want their vape flavors to mimic a cigarette. To me, that’s evidence that people don’t want to smoke.
“Teen smoking is the lowest it’s ever been because of vaping,” McDaniels said. “Lawmakers think kids are doing this for the flavors. No, the kids are doing this for the nicotine buzz. You take this away, they’re still going to find a way to get nicotine. They’ll just go back to combustible cigarettes like they did when I was younger.”
McDaniels states that vaping products in general are not meant to be habit-forming the way combustible cigarettes are, and that honest vape shops are in the business of getting their customers off nicotine entirely.
“Honestly, we want you to get to a point where you eventually don’t do any of it, smoking, vaping or anything else,” McDaniels said. “We just think not smoking cigarettes in the meantime is a plus.”
Hatlee also stated she has a few concerns with the change to winter weather, where smoking and vaping tends to exacerbate respiratory problems that come with the season.
As far as whether or not smokers should consider switching to vaping to help them quit, Hatlee was quick with her answer.
“Stop entirely,” Hatlee said. “We already know the long-term effects of cigarette smoking. We don’t know the long-term effects of using e-cigarettes.”
“I believe both ways, honestly,” Marshall said. “People will always sell their own juices. Unless it’s from a dispensary or you know exactly what is in it, just stay away from it. The smartest thing to do is stay away from it entirely, because you never know what could be in there that you don’t want to put in your body.”