BLOOMINGTON — Saying illegal THC cartridges, not electronic-cigarette flavors, are to blame for recent life-threatening lung illnesses, the co-manager of a Bloomington vape shop called a proposed ban on e-cigarette flavors "outrageous."
"The illnesses have been caused by tainted THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) products," not vaping products sold legally in shops, said Scott Walk of The Choice Vape Shop in Smoker's Choice, 1212 Towanda Ave. in Bloomington.
"THC cartridges are an illegal product," he said.
"We can't sell them," said Walk's co-manager, Zach Magon.
But central Illinois medical professionals said investigations continue to determine the "causative agent" of the illnesses and deaths. Meanwhile, they recommend that central Illinoisans quit vaping or don't start.
"There's no benefit to it," said Dr. Paul Pedersen, president of the Illinois State Medical Society, vice president and chief medical officer of OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center and an internal medicine physician in Bloomington. "So why do it?"
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said last week that it will ban non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes following a rash of lung illnesses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 450 cases of severe respiratory illness and six deaths in 33 states.
In Illinois, there have been 52 cases and one death, said Melaney Arnold of the Illinois Department of Public Health. The 18 counties where cases have been reported include Tazewell, Peoria, Champaign and Vermilion.
Walk and Magon said illicit market THC cartridges are the cause. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Vitamin E acetate has recently been used as a thickening agent in black market vape cartridges, Walk said. "When heated to vaporization levels, vitamin E acetate becomes highly toxic," he said.
"Vaping has been around for over 15 years and there was no single respiratory illness," Walk said. "Now, because of the insane popularity of illegal, illicit, black-market THC products, this is happening now."
Walk and Magon said vaping helped them to quit cigarette smoking after other approaches failed. They said e-cigarette dessert flavors helped to make cigarette smoking less satisfying.
"I feel infinitely better," Walk said. "Ninety-five percent of our (vaping) customers want the flavors."
Banning flavors will "push 13 million e-cigarette users back into combustible tobacco," which kills 1,300 people in the United States each day, or to the black market, Walk said, citing CDC statistics.
"It's going to put every single vape shop out of business," Walk said. "If you want to reduce youth (vaping) use, only sell it in age-restricted locations (such as vape shops) and ban online sales."
Illinois law prohibits sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to people under 21, said Krystle Tempel, Macon County Health Department health educator.
Dr. Rizwan Malik, a pulmonologist with Advocate Medical Group in Normal, said a recent New England Journal of Medicine study found that 80 percent of patients in the study with respiratory failure admitted to using a THC product in their e-cigarette. "But there have been no conclusions as to which substance is responsible for the respiratory failure," he said.
While Malik had no opinion on the proposed flavors ban, he said: "Vaping should not be considered as a way to quit cigarettes. It is not without its harm. There is evidence of lung disease and it could lead to a worsening of asthma symptoms."
"If people want to vape, they shouldn't modify the product on their own," Malik said.
Pedersen called the proposed flavors ban "reasonable."
"Vaping is not safe to do," Pedersen said. "There are chemicals that aren't necessarily safe," including nicotine, which can lead to increased heart rate, blood vessel constriction and reduced blood flow, he said.
"E-cigarettes, including JUULs, use liquids that contain nicotine which is the same addictive drug found in cigarettes and other tobacco products," Tempel said.
"People say it's safer than smoking cigarettes," Pedersen said. "Yes, because smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States."
"If you're addicted to smoking cigarettes and want to use vaping to stop, then stop vaping after a period of time," he said.
Pedersen and Malik recommended that smokers talk with their doctor to determine smoking-cessation tools, which may include nicotine replacement products — such as a patch, gum and lozenges — and smoking-cessation medicine.
"These are treatments that have been shown in studies to work," Malik said.