Cook County Board bans sale of flavored vapes in unincorporated areas

The sale of flavored e-cigarettes was banned in unincorporated Cook County by unanimous vote of the County Board on Thursday.

The ordinance affects 42 retailers and is expected to only put a minor dent — less than $10,000 — in the taxes collected on nicotine products, according to the county’s finance department.

County Commissioner Donna Miller, the lead sponsor, made two tweaks to the ordinance after it was first announced: She extended the ban to menthol and mint-flavored vapes — a key request from health advocates — and is giving retailers 60 days to comply, rather than making the ban immediately effective.

Miller and supporters said the ban would help keep the products out of the hands of teens, in the hopes of preventing long-term nicotine addiction and reducing the costs of treating lung damage in the long term.

“A ban on flavored nicotine liquid will reduce nicotine addiction and lung damage caused by inhalation of nicotine-containing liquid,” Dr. Susanna McColley and Dr. Maria Rahmandar of Lurie Children’s Hospital wrote in submitted testimony. They work in the hospital’s pulmonary and substance abuse divisions, respectively. “Decades of research have proven that the adolescent brain is much more susceptible to nicotine addiction than the adult brain; this risk of addiction persists into the early 20s, well past the age of legal purchase.”

Physicians who testified during a committee hearing Wednesday said menthol was especially important to ban, since many who become addicted to nicotine start with menthol products

The ban applies to “any liquid nicotine product that contains a constituent that imparts a characterizing flavor,” including “tastes or aromas of menthol, mint, wintergreen, chocolate, vanilla, honey, cocoa, any candy, any dessert, any alcoholic beverage, any fruit, any herb, or any spice.” It does not apply to tobacco-flavored vapes.

The ordinance gives the sheriff power to “conduct unannounced inspections” on retailers or vending machine operators selling nicotine products. Violators would be subject “to a fine of not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000 for each offense.”

Displaying any flavored nicotine products would garner a $500 fine for a first offense and could result in the loss of a retailer’s license for more than three violations within a 12-month period.

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle applauded the board’s effort, saying flavored nicotine is “specifically designed to appeal to kids, which is despicable.”

”I’d encourage other cities towns and villages to enact similar legislation,” she said.

However, the Illinois Fuel and Retail Association, which represents convenience stores and gas stations, was opposed, warning the ban would only drive “adult consumers to other counties or across state lines and to illicit markets where sellers are unconcerned about age-of-purchase laws and other efforts to prevent youth access to these age-restricted products.”

Some commissioners who ultimately voted in favor of the ban expressed worries that it might push teens and adults to purchase vapes online or from unlicensed retailers. Miller said she’d “be happy for us to work as the County Board to coordinate with the city of Chicago on how to eliminate the black market,” but that she wanted to encourage “other home rule municipalities to adopt the same sort of legislation that the city of Chicago has adopted.”

Chicago banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in 2020, on top of an indoor vaping ban and a tax on e-cigarettes. Suburban retailers and shoppers told the Tribune in November that ban helped push customers their way.

Commissioner Kevin Morrison, who said he smoked as a teen, also said he worried about the potential purchase of vapes laced with fentanyl. Alongside bans designed for prevention, he said the county should be providing more resources to help current smokers quit.

Morrison said he was “in full agreement that whatever we can do to stop youth from starting to use nicotine products to begin with is 100% something we should be doing, but for those who already are addicted, the support system’s not there. That needs to change and needs investment.”

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