BY KATE THAYER
CHICAGO — As public health officials try to identify a respiratory illness that has hospitalized teenagers who vape across the country, including as many as 22 in Illinois, experts say some parents still don’t realize the dangers of the practice, which can be even more addictive than tobacco cigarettes.
In recent weeks, adolescents with difficulty breathing were hospitalized, and some put on ventilators, health officials said. In Illinois 10 of these cases have been linked to vaping and 12 more are under investigation as of Wednesday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. There are dozens more in other states.
As state and federal health officials search for answers, experts say it’s important for parents to understand the dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes — now the most used tobacco products among youths.
Here are five things to know about the dangers of vaping:
LONG-TERM EFFECTS UNKNOWN
E-cigarettes, or vapes, or Juuls — a popular brand name — are devices that heat liquid that usually contains nicotine, producing an aerosol vapor inhaled by the user.
Dr. Trevor Lewis, interim chair of emergency medicine at Stroger Hospital, said some parents believe vapes contain harmless water vapor. However, not only are the devices usually filled with addictive nicotine, but also flavorings “that could be chemicals we don’t know about.”
“Several things could be in this mixture that you’re inhaling into your lungs,” he said. Vaping “is still relatively new, so no one knows the long-term consequences of this.”
That’s part of the concern about the new respiratory illness and its possible link to vaping that’s sent dozens to the hospital, Lewis said. Doctors do not know enough about the substances inhaled into the teens’ lungs, he said.
Karen Wolownik Albert, a social worker and executive director of Gateway Foundation’s Lake County treatment center, said she talks to parents and teens about the dangers of vaping, and she warns them about the ingredients, like glycerol, used for flavor. She said she hears from parents that a sticky substance coats their windows after a teen has vaped inside. “That’s like glycerin accumulating in your lungs.”
And a recent study, published Tuesday, shows that even vapors that don’t contain nicotine can be harmful by reducing blood flow after just one puff.
MYTHS STILL EXIST
Despite news reports and warnings from health and school officials, some myths still exist. Vaping was marketed as a way to quit smoking, Wolownik Albert said, which has led parents to believe it’s not harmful.
And parents tend to worry about “other scary things like alcohol or heroin,” she said. They’ll think, “‘Well at least my kid is only vaping.’”
Besides the harmful and unknown ingredients inhaled during vaping, Wolownik Albert said the device itself can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Vapes are meant to be kept sterile, but “most teenagers aren’t great at keeping things clean,” she said.
EASIER TO CONSUME MORE
Vaping devices are less conspicuous than a smelly cigarette, making it a preferred choice of teens sneaking into their school bathrooms, experts say.
“When you think about when a teenager smokes a cigarette, it smells, it’s hard to hide from adults,” Wolownik Albert said.
But that element is removed when teens use easy-to-hide, odorless vapes, she said. And because it’s easier for teens to use, they can vape more than they could smoke, leading to more nicotine.
“They’re vaping so much more and getting so much more nicotine than they would get if they were smoking cigarettes,” Wolownik Albert said. “As much as (the equivalent of) a pack or more a day.”
GATEWAY TO ADDICTION
While smoking rates among young people had plummeted in recent years, vaping is on the rise, Wolownik Albert said. This could be responsible for a new, future generation of smokers.
Because of the addictive properties of nicotine, vaping can lead to cigarette smoking as teens age, she said. “Just when we had made progress on the number of people addicted to nicotine, now we’ll have an increase.”
And nicotine is often a gateway to other substances, Wolownik Albert said.
COMPANIES UNDER FIRE
Juul, a company that makes e-cigarettes, now faces legal challenges and allegations of marketing addictive nicotine products to teenagers, luring them in with fruity flavors.
Cook County teenager Christian Floss filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court against Juul Labs, Philip Morris USA and parent company Altria. He said the companies encouraged use of e-cigarettes among young people like him. Floss said he started vaping at age 16, is now addicted and suffers from asthma.
Last week, the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office sued Juul, alleging the company intentionally targeted teenagers. The company also faces lawsuits in Florida and North Carolina.
Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said in a statement Tuesday that the company’s products were always meant for adult smokers, as an alternative to cigarettes.
The company also made adjustments in the past year in response to the criticism, launching a plan to fight underage use and lobbying for laws like the one passed earlier this year in Illinois to raise the age to buy tobacco products to 21.