If you haven’t heard about it yet, then you should know that Illinois is one of the only states that punishes minors caught vaping with civil penalties. Now, we’re not talking about minimum ages for vaping or punishing retailers who sell e-cigarettes to minors; we’re talking about sentencing teens in court for nothing more than possessing an e-cigarette.
Illinois first started enforcing this policy in 2016, when it passed a law to punish anyone under the age of 18 who is caught with an e-cigarette or other vaping product. The law allows Illinois courts to fine minors up to $200, order them to attend an education class, and/or sentence them to up to fifty hours of community service.
The move was controversial since, so far, most states have only instituted punishments for retailers who sell vaping products to minors—not punishments for the minors themselves. But despite opposition, the City of Park Ridge, Illinois recently decided to take the punishment even further.
An ordinance passed recently by the Park Ridge city council raises the fine for underage vaping up to a whopping $500, with an option for an alternative punishment of a smaller fine plus mandatory attendance in an anti-vaping education class.
Last month, eight teenagers in Park Ridge had to appear in court for sentencing after being caught in possession of a vaping product. All eight of them got sentenced to pay the smaller fine as well as attend the city’s “diversion program” for educating teens about the dangers of vaping.
These new policies in Illinois raise a lot of questions and concerns about whether or not this kind of punishment is appropriate or effective. Does treating children and teens like criminals for “possession” really help, or is this a policy path that we should stay away from?
Criminalizing E-cigarette Possession?
If you watch the news coverage of Park Ridge’s new vaping ordinance, you might notice a certain word is used often: posession. This is a word that, before now, was used almost exclusively in reference to illegal drugs.
It seems that politicians like those in Park Ridge are trying to bring the prohibition narrative to the debate on teen e-cigarette use. It’s the natural consequence of fear-mongering rhetoric like “e-cigarettes are a teen epidemic,” and a big part of the reason that exaggerated, polarizing language can be dangerous.
Let’s be clear: nobody thinks that teenagers should have unfettered access to e-cigarettes. Just about everyone, including vaping advocates, supports a minimum purchasing age for vapor products as well as evidence-based deterrents and science-based education.
However, what the city of Park Ridge is doing goes far beyond this, and far beyond the level that other anti-vaping efforts have dared to go so far. Park Ridge is experimenting with an anti-vaping approach that goes quite a few steps further than minimum age laws and strict rules for vaping in schools.
Teens should be discouraged from vaping, but there’s probably no need to skip ahead to heavy fines, civil penalties, and court hearings. Sentencing teens who are caught vaping to mandatory, city-run re-education classes to many seems a bit extreme, yet still unlikely to deter teens who are smart enough to realize that their chances of getting caught are slim.
All you have to do is look at tobacco research to find doubts about policies that institute these kinds of punishments for underage smokers. One study in the Tobacco Control Journal found that laws which penalize youth for purchasing, using, or possessing (PUP) tobacco are likely less effective than laws that punish retailers and regulations that prevent the tobacco industry from selling and marketing to kids.
Researchers say that PUP laws that punish underage smokers are unlikely to have any significant effect on youth smoking rates, which means similar laws are not likely to effect youth vaping rates, either. Overall, the researchers said, these laws “lack important features required for punishment to be effective in changing behavior.”
Rounding up teens for court hearings and doling out civil penalties is just one small step away from true prohibition and real criminalization. We, as Americans, need to ask ourselves if that is a direction that we really want to go with vaping policy.
A Troubling Shift Toward Regulating Citizens Instead of Industry
If we are okay with fining teens hundreds of dollars and sending them to court for vaping, will we also be okay with giving teens criminal trials and criminal records as well? This is something we’ve already seen over and over again with other drugs, including marijuana and alcohol.
Many teens and young adults across the country have had to bear the burden of a criminal record, probation, and many lost opportunities due to laws that criminalize the possession of restricted substances. Those lost opportunities can be devastating, especially to a young person just starting to build their life.
Is it worth it to put the same burden on teens who commit no other offense besides vaping? While Illinois’ penalties are handled as civil matters, rather than criminal matters, how long will it be before teens start getting criminal records just for experimenting with e-cigarettes?
You also have to consider what will happen to young people over the age of 18 who vape in places where the minimum age for using an e-cigarette is 21. As legal adults, these young people stand to lose many more rights and opportunities should they be charged with underage e-cigarette possession.
These are the questions that we should be considering any time an activist or policymaker suggests instituting civil or criminal penalties for the mere posession of vaping products. Penalties and regulations on e-cigarette producers and retailers is one thing, but punishing the citizens and youth for possessing a product that’s legally on the market is something else entirely.