SPRINGFIELD — Illinois officials agree the growing number of severe respiratory illnesses related to vaping must be addressed, and in recent days, the state’s chief executive, top attorney and health expert have taken action. On Sept. 30, lawmakers explored legislative options during a committee hearing in Chicago.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said there are 69 people in Illinois sick with lung injuries resulting from the inhalation of chemicals from vaping. Thirteen others are being examined to see if their illnesses are related. One Illinois resident has died.

Each of them reported using either an e-cigarette or other product such as THC — that is “the only common thread” in Illinois’ cases, Ezike said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are more than 50 products and devices linked to the state’s cases.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a warning to residents on Sept. 27 not to use e-cigarettes and other vaping products until the CDC completes an investigation being done in conjunction with the state Public Health Department.

“There is much more research needed to understand the short- and long-term health effects of using e-cigarette products,” he said in a news release.

The Department of Public Health has also assembled a panel of stakeholders and experts to evaluate vaping’s health impacts and appropriate regulatory controls.

Its first meeting was Sept. 13, when representatives from various state agencies — including the health department, attorney general’s office, Department of Human Services, State Board of Education, Emergency Management Agency, Department of Financial & Professional Regulation, Department of Agriculture and Poison Center — met in Chicago to understand what each was doing to combat “the current situation,” an IDPH spokeswoman said in an email.

“The working group is not only looking at the immediate situation, but also the larger issue of youth vaping,” she added.

The IDPH is also heading other initiatives. Officials have traveled to middle and high schools across the state to see how prevalent the use of vaping devices is, and they plan to launch a social media campaign explaining the negative health impacts of smoking products, including e-cigarettes, Ezike said.

Last month, IDPH launched an online survey that allows Illinoisans to anonymously submit information about their vaping habits. Ezike said department officials are hoping it will give them insight into why some users of e-cigarettes and other devices have gotten sick, while others have not.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul told lawmakers on Sept. 30 that he has been discussing with counterparts in other states the regulation and investigation of manufacturers of e-cigarettes and vaping devices manufacturers.

“Illinois is not alone is this crisis, but it has touched Illinois,” he said.

With the top attorneys in seven other states, Raoul petitioned the federal Food and Drug Administration to “strengthen” e-cigarette guidance, specifically related to flavored products.

Legislation to ban selling flavored e-cigarettes was discussed during the panel of House lawmakers in Chicago.

“While I fully support a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, the problem is more comprehensive than that,” Raoul said. “I don’t believe the Legislature’s work will be done simply by banning flavored e-cigarettes.

“We have to realize a lot of the harm is growing out of the black market, and reflexive policies that are not fully thought out might have the reverse impact of growing the black market.”

Advertising e-cigarettes as a way to help quit an addiction to cigarettes, Raoul and Ezike said, is having an opposite effect on young people.

The IDPH director said the trend of traditional cigarette use among youths is widely declining. But, Raoul said, in the past 30 days, 21 percent of high school students and 5 percent of middle school students used e-cigarettes. E-cigarettes, he added, act as “a gateway to using combustible cigarettes.”

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