The sale of electronic cigarettes and other vapor devices to minors is now prohibited in Illinois, but it appears some store clerks are not following the rules when approached by young adults looking to purchase the products.
Two college-aged NBC 5 Investigates interns used hidden cameras to document whether tobacco shops near Wrigley Field would card them for e-cigarette and e-hookah purchases. The law requires clerks to check IDs of any customers who appear to be under the age of 27.
Four of the seven shops the interns visited checked for age verification. However, three stores collected cash for the products without asking for IDs.
For example, Halsted Smoke Shop did not card our intern for an e-hookah pen. The store later told us they normally check IDs. Smoke Shop Novelties and Stuff on North Clark sold our intern an e-cig without verifying our intern's age. NBC 5 Investigates later asked about the store policy and was referred to the owner, who did not return our request for comment.
Battery-powered e-cigarettes and hookah pens heat flavored liquids, like blueberry and watermelon, and create vapor that's inhaled. Many of the liquids contain nicotine.
"The nicotine liquid in e-cigarettes is extracted from tobacco, so it is still a tobacco product," said Dr. Scott Frank of University Hospital's Case Medical Center.
The state's new law and the recent City of Chicago ban on indoor e-cigarette use comes at a time when vaping, as it's called, is growing increasingly popular among teens. A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control revealed the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette more than doubled between 2011 and 2012. Use also doubled among middle school students.
"I think kids are just smoking e-cigarettes now to look cool," said high school senior Paul Baumgartner. "It's just like real cigarettes back in like the '80s or something. They see all their friends doing so they just want to do it."
Baumgartner, 18, is legally old enough to purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products. He said he occasionally uses e-cigs, although he prefers conventional cigarettes.
"The electronic cigarettes, they give me a raspy feel in my throat and kind of make my lungs wheeze a little bit and it's weird because they say it's healthier, but I think it's worse to be honest," Baumgartner said.
Supporters hail e-cigarettes as smoking cessation aids. However, the CDC said there is no conclusive scientific evidence that the devices promote successful long-term quitting.
While e-cigarettes may be considered a harm reduction approach for adult smokers, some health experts argue e-cigs can be a harm creation approach to adolescents.
"When adolescents start using e-cigarettes they are 6 to 8 times more likely, according to a new study, to also smoke conventional cigarettes," Frank said.
The study, published by JAMA Pediatrics, concludes that use of e-cigarettes does not discourage, and may encourage, conventional cigarette use among US adolescents.
The crew at Vape on North Western Avenue in Chicago said their products can help people stop smoking but they do not market towards kids.
"As far as carding for 18 and older, I totally agree with that and I can probably speak for most of the vape shops around that they also agree with that as well," said owner Eric Scheman.
The Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA), which represents a wide cross section of the "smoke free" industry including distributors, manufacturers, and retailers, said it supports a national age restriction on the sale of vapor products.
"These products are intended for adult smokers and are marketed to that demographic," said SFATA executive director Cynthia Cabrera.
Still, teens are getting their hands on electronic cigarettes and their related products.
Cynae DeRose is a busy mother who said she hears about e-cigs and hookah pens from her kids.
"My teenagers tell me that their friends are still using them," DeRose said. "Some of them are regular users."
DeRose was concerned enough about e-cigarette and e-hookah use among adolescents to help promote Chicago's indoor ban on e-cigarettes, which took effect April 29. She also urges parents to speak to their children about e-cigarettes and hookahs, which she said she hopes are eventually sold without candy flavoring.
"When they get to the point where that e-cigarette is not enough, it could lead them to cigarettes. It could lead them to other drugs," DeRose said.
Police in Elmhurst said teens are using e-cig devices to smoke liquids which sometimes contain THC, which is the intoxicating compound found in cannabis.
"The Elmhurst Police Department has successfully field tested these liquids and appropriate school and police consequences have been levied," said Detective Jeff Kucera.
The Illinois Principals Association recommends students may be disciplined for misconduct for using, possessing, distributing, purchasing or selling tobacco materials, including electronic cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration is currently considering a nation-wide ban on e-cigarette sales to minors. The proposed rules would also require manufacturers to list the ingredients of e-cigarettes.