Retailers, medical providers, educators watch reports of vaping deaths and illness

Dorsey Gibbes won't let anybody into the Drip N Drop vape store on Poquonnock Road in Groton until they show their identification.

Gibbes, like other area vape retailers interviewed Saturday, insists that for adults, vaping oils containing nicotine are far safer than smoking tobacco. 

But he doesn't want children to use the products he sells. The legal age for purchasing vape products in Connecticut goes from 18 to 21 on Oct. 1, and Gibbes will continue to look out for "straw buyers," or people of legal age who purchase vape products in large amounts and sell them to underage friends.

He doesn't sell products containing CBD, either, because he said members of the military, who make up 85 to 90 percent of his customers, aren't allowed to use the nonpsychoactive, hemp-derived product.

He plans to open a second shop on Route 12 in Gales Ferry, also close to the base.

"This is a specialty store," Gibbes said. "This is all we do. If we don't do this right, we're not going to be in business."

Vape proponents and medical providers alike are paying close attention to recent reports of deaths and illnesses related to vaping and to calls for banning vape products or at least the flavored ones that appeal to young people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported six deaths and about 380 confirmed respiratory illnesses nationwide. Connecticut's Department of Public Health reported Thursday that there have been 11 vaping-related illnesses in the state since mid-August: one in New London County, seven in Fairfield County and three in New Haven County.

Dr. Pnina Weiss, a pediatric pulmonologist at Yale New Haven Hospital who has treated young patients with vaping-related illnesses, contends the products are harmful for users of all ages. She said vaping has become a public health crisis, with the CDC reporting that 25 percent of high school-age children have reported using vape products in the past 30 days.

"We had a recent case in the pediatric ICU, and luckily all of us involved recognized (vaping-related illness) was a potential in this child," she said.

The specific products linked to the illness have not been reported, but the CDC has named Vitamin E acetate found in vape oils containing THC, not nicotine, as a possible source. They urge consumers to avoid buying vaping products on the street, and to refrain from modifying products purchased in stores.

At Vapor Express on Route 32 in Montville, artfully packaged boxes and bottles of vape juice fill shelves in two rooms. It's one of three stores owned by Vincent Impelliteri, who said he tried vaping after smoking cigarettes for 30 years and can now walk up a set of stairs without running out of breath. The 50-year-old father of two young adults said he wouldn't want his kids to vape, but that the majority of customers at his stores in Montville, Norwich and Groton are ex-smokers seeking a safer alternative to tobacco.

"They have no intention of ever quitting," Impelliteri said. 

Impelliteri said the products that caused the illnesses and deaths were likely homemade or purchased on the street and that he does business with reputable suppliers who submit laboratory reports of the contents of the vape oils. Unlike Gibbes, who has a pharmaceutical background and formulated chemicals for 23 years at Pfizer, Impelliteri, a former casino floor supervisor, doesn't have a background in science. He said to some extent his son, a chemical engineer, helps him out.

Brenton Chambers, owner of Juiceman's Cloud City Vape Shop in the Taftville section of Norwich, said he smoked cigarettes for five years before taking up vaping.

"It's not healthy, but it's a healthy alternative to smoking," he said. His customers generally range in age from 20 to 45, he said.

His store, located in a strip mall alongside a liquor store, consignment shop and fireworks store, has a pool table, couches where customers can sit and watch a video about vaping and stools where people can sit and vape. In the far corner, there is a selection of bongs, pipes and rolling papers, and Chambers said he would sell marijuana vapes and other products if marijuana ever becomes legal for recreational use.

Customer Kimberly Lacourse, 37, of Lebanon, who was purchasing candy-apple flavored oil, said she started vaping six years ago while continuing to smoke cigarettes, in order to save money. Her significant other, Stacy Dozier, 47, said she likes vaping a newer product that doesn't contain nicotine so that she can "have the vision of smoking."

Back at the Drip N Drop in Groton, 21-year-old Kiya Thompson sat on a high stool at the counter with two vaping devices in front of her while her boyfriend, store employee Chris Rice, waited on customers.

Thompson said she started vaping at 19 to ease her anxiety and uses it as an exercise to focus on breathing in and out. She had a bottle of rainbow flavor vape juice, which her boyfriend likened to Skittles candy. Both said it isn't shops like Drip N Drop that are supplying young people with vape products. Kids can buy them online without showing ID, and some convenience stores also are willing to sell the product "to anyone with cash," they said.

Schools have started to educate students about the health risks and potential for addiction associated with vaping.

Two years ago, Norwich Free Academy began sharing materials with students, faculty, staff and parents about the dangers of vaping through its weekly Sunday Night Reminder email, according to Geoff Serra, the school's director of communication.

This year, NFA merged vaping with tobacco violations and consequences in its disciplinary code and is arranging an online, educational course as a requirement for violators. The school also is in the process of installing and calibrating electronic vapor detectors as deterrents in areas across campus, according to Serra.

Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

k.florin@theday.com

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