EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of three stories (one gives a state perspective and can be found by clicking here, and the other gives the perspective of youth in Galesburg and can be found by clicking here) that are part of a regional project that looks at the effort statewide and locally to push the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, while removing current penalties for tobacco possession for those 18 and under. Illinois is looking to become the sixth state to change the purchase age. In the meantime, 16 Illinois cities, including Chicago and Peoria, have already made the legal age 21. This project is the result of work by daily newspapers in the GateHouse Western Illinois Division.

Some local teens are not too thrilled with the idea of government telling them they have to wait to age 21 to smoke or vape, yet they often say they wish they had never started.

The Tobacco 21 bill is in Committee in the House and has passed the Senate. The bill would restrict shops from selling to anyone under 21.

Carl Whitletch II, 18, of Pekin, vapes and uses number three nicotine, one of the lowest levels of the drug. He is currently trying to quit.

“I had all smokers in my family, and that’s what caused me to smoke,” said Whitletch. “I threw up the first time I smoked a cigarette, so I decided on the vaping.

“I kind of regret it, because I use a lot of money on it. But at the same time, it’s a great stress reliever. I kind of feel that it’s ridiculous that at 18 we can go take the chance of losing our lives overseas, but we can’t sip alcohol or can’t smoke. That’s what they’re going for. I don’t know why I can risk my life but still can’t do things older people do and risk their lives even more.”

One 18-year-old who declined to be identified said Tobacco 21 is a good idea. He never smoked a cigarette but got hooked on vaping.

“If it’s stopping kids from vaping it’s a good idea,” he said. “I mean, it is addictive.

“If I could go back and tell myself it is dumb, yeah, (I) probably (wouldn’t have started). It is kind of a good community of people, but I wouldn’t encourage people to start if they haven’t already. There’s lots of cloud chasing (a contest where teens see who can blow the biggest cloud of smoke from the vape) and competitions for trips. That was a lot of the attraction (to me). Now I just do (number) 3. I’m trying to cut back further.”

Tobacco business

Smokers Paradise Manager Michelle Price said taking 18- to 21-year-olds out of the customer pool will not have a huge effect on her business located at 505 S. Parkway Drive, Pekin.

“Overall most of my customers are the older generation,” said Price. “I think if it was to be crucial in any aspect it would be vaping.

“I think it’s going to put out a lot of vaping stores because that’s a trend with the younger generation. Vaping covers the general population, but you see more of your (18- to 30-year-olds doing it). That’s the age range I see most when it comes to vaping ... Most people started smoking when they were teens and thought it was cool, and now they want to get away from it. So we’ve actually witnessed smokers step down on their own and even quit smoking completely with the use of their vape. Many of them then stop vaping all together.”

One of the attractions of vaping is the cloud competitions.

“It’s who can vape the biggest cloud,” said Price. “I think it’s pointless personally (to change the age) — most are not even using the nicotine. 

“The nicotine levels in vaping that we sell the most of is zero and three. It’s the fad, the trend. There are going to be smokers of every age, so it’s not going to hurt the tobacco industry. It’s going to hurt your vaping stores.”

The vaping products that go into the vape machines are geared toward young people — names like “That Cookie Dough Classic, “Swirly Pop Classic,” “Eat a Peach,” to name a few — all in brightly colored containers.

“I can tell you straight up we’ve had so many of them complain (about Tobacco 21),” said Price. “They’re going to travel wherever they have to.

“They’re going to spend their money come hell or high water no matter where they have to go. If they have to leave state, they’re going to do it even if they don’t put nicotine in. It’s about being cool. That’s precisely it.” 

The vape rooms

The Vaporium Owner Robert Abbott in Pekin said the bulk of his customers range from 20 to 35 years of age. The store, located at 1402 N. Eighth St., Pekin, is vape only.

“There are quite a few customers 18 to 21, and a lot of them don’t even get nicotine,” he said. “Some of them started smoking and want to cut down, so they vape.

“Most people try everything when they’re young regardless of what age they’re restricted at. I mean in high school most kids go to kegger parties on the weekend — you go to people’s parties. They’re nowhere near 21 — (they’re) 16, 15, 17, depending on what grade you’re in — they’re still getting it. That’s not going to change.   

“You can go online and get a debit card from Walmart or any other store and order whatever you want. So all they are doing is impacting our revenue and our taxes.”

JJ Vapes in Pekin declined to comment.

Pekin Council waiting

Pekin Mayor John McCabe said he wants to wait and see what happens with the proposed legislation at the state level.

“If the General Assembly passes it into law, it will be a moot point, and we won’t have to worry about it,” said McCabe. “You have to look at the benefits verses the negatives on this, and I don’t see that there’s that many negatives to it.

“I have not had a detailed discussion with each of the Council members, but a couple have voiced their concerns to me. One strongly supports it, and one is not really sure they want to go that route.”

McCabe said some people will view Tobacco 21 as government overreach. Others may worry about the negative impact on sales taxes at a time when sales taxes are on the decline in Pekin and some businesses are closing.

“I suppose it would (impact taxes) to a certain extent, but I don’t think that age group of three years could have that big of an impact on taxes,” said McCabe. 

McCabe is a retired teacher, which plays into his thoughts on the Tobacco 21 issue.

“I didn’t take these children to raise,” said McCabe. “I spent an hour a day educating them, and then I was supposed to be responsible for their moral upbringing.

“Again, government overreach with regards to letting parents shirk their responsibilities to a certain extent. Of course, the other side of that is that unfortunately we have a percentage of parents who do shirk their responsibility in the upbringing of their children. But we’re not talking 6-year-olds. We’re talking about 18-year-olds.”

Washington passes

Washington passed its Tobacco 21 ordinance in the first week in April, the first community in central Illinois to do so. Mayor Gary Manier said the vote was unanimous. Manier heard about the proposed legislation at an annual meeting of area municipalities and counties where Tazewell and Peoria counties, and Washington, Pekin, East Peoria, Peoria, Peoria Heights and Morton attended. Peoria followed on April 24.

“For the health reasons alone and not having kids get started on it really drew the attention of most of us,” said Manier. “I think most of us are going to follow suit.

“Hopefully the legislation will get some legs in Springfield as well. It matches our alcohol 21, so it just makes sense to make that happen. It’s not like parents are OK with 18-year-olds smoking. I don’t think (smoking) is a huge problem, I just think it’s a nice step from a health standpoint, from a human services standpoint, that we can take up this ordinance and show people that we do care about their health.”

Manier said the ordinance is not a possession offense. The ordinance simply changes the age from 18 to 21 for a shop to sell an individual tobacco products or e-cigarette materials. Parents may still purchase tobacco for their children if that is what the parent chooses to do, said Manier, and 18- to 21-year-olds can go to neighboring communities to purchase the materials. Manier said he hopes that Peoria and the region will pass Tobacco 21.

“If we can keep kids from starting with the possible sickness and health issues that come from it down the road, I think we’re money ahead,” said Manier. 

He said he believes Tobacco 21 will gain momentum, adding that there were no residents who spoke against the ordinance change.

At this point, the council is hoping those who sell tobacco will obey and card. People will say government is overstepping its bounds, said Manier, but, “If we can save even one or two lives down the road then that’s what good government should be.”