GURNEE, Ill. — He went from an otherwise healthy teenager to wrestling with an addiction that nearly cost him his life.
A varsity athlete at Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Adam Hergenreder started vaping when he was 16 using the popular Juul e-cigarette.
“I would say 80% of the school was doing it already,” he said. “I just hopped on the bandwagon. The flavors were appealing too. The first one I tried was mint. … I found out about mango, cucumber.”
The habit became an all day, everyday thing.
His mother Polly Hergenreder knew her son was vaping, and like most parents, was against it. She threw away his cartridges when she'd find them and told him to stop,
But he was hooked.
“Adam was going through a pod and a half every day. That's equivalent to 20-30 cigarettes,” she said. “My son would have never touched a cigarette but here he was using this device.”
“I liked how it tasted and liked how it made me feel,” Adam Hergenreder said. “It was like a head rush. I remember getting a little bit light headed.”
Hergenreder eventually started vaping THC as well.
In August, he got sick.
“At first I felt tremors, super cold and I couldn't control them,” he said. “The next day I started to throw up.”
After three days of vomiting and a high fever, his parents took him to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville.
“It was extremely difficult, especially seeing him on the ventilator,” Adam’s father John Hergenreder said. “He could barely breathe. … It was scary, very scary.”
At first, doctors thought Adam Hergenreder was battling an extreme flu, but after x-rays, and a CT scan, they knew that wasn't what was wrong.
Julie Aistairs is an Advanced Practice Oncology Nurse at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. She sees a lot of patients with lung cancer from smoking cigarettes but said the damage caused by vaping is different.
“This is more advanced,” she said. “It’s water vapor getting deeper into your tissue than when you smoke a cigarette. It's really scary it's doing this in such a short time.”
Aistairs said it will cause tissue damage and cell death in the lining of the airways and the lungs themselves.
In October, doctors from the Mayo Clinic collected biopsy samples of 17 patients around the country who had become sick or died after vaping use. They all showed what looked like a toxic chemical burn, similar to people exposed to poisons like mustard gas in world war one.
In November, the Center for Disease Control was able to identify Vitamin E acetate as a common denominator in the samples of sick patients, a chemical additive in some THC vaping products.
There has been a spike in e-cigarette use among teens over the past two years. CDC data shows that more than one in four high school students are vaping, up from about one in 10 in 2017.
“At first I was angry because it was something we told him not to do,” Polly Hergenreder said. “Then my anger went towards Juul. They have this product that made my son so addicted and now here he is laying in a hospital bed.”
The Hergenreder family has filed a lawsuit against Juul Labs, blaming the company for marketing its products to children with a claim of being a safe alternative to smoking.
“What JUUL was doing was acting as the proverbial carnival clown handing out lollipops to kids,” attorney Tony Romanucci said.
A full statement from Antonio Romanucci, of Romanucci & Blandin, LLC follows:
We believe strongly in the legal case brought by Adam and others arising out of the deceptive marketing practices by JUUL. As you would expect, JUUL's lawyers are actively trying to create defenses that a jury will see right through when all of the facts are presented before them. They always knew nicotine was a highly addictive drug and they knew it when they marketed the drug for children. We have great confidence in the merits of these cases and will continue our efforts to seek full recovery for the related damages sustained by America’s youth related to this reckless company’s deceiving marketing efforts.
“I would Iike them to shut the doors,” John Herngenreder said. “This is an epidemic. It's not going to get any better until something is done.”
After pressure from the federal government, Juul Labs first took its fruity flavored pods off the market in October and then, discontinued its popular mint flavor.
CEO Kevin Burns also stepped down last fall.
The Hergenreder family has started their own campaign to discourage vaping among teens.
“Quit while you're ahead,” Adam Hergenreder said. “You don't want anything to happen like what happened to me.”
The family is currently working with the Lake County State's Attorney to install vaping disposal bins, much like the ones used to drop off old prescription bottles, or used hypodermic needles, around the community.
Though his wrestling days are over, Adam Hergenreder says his biggest fight yet will be discouraging teens from walking down the same path he did.
“My advice for them is to take a few seconds and just think about what can happen,” he said. “It’s not worth it at all.”
There have been more than 2600 people sickened from vaping across the country, with 60 deaths. Five of the people who died lived in Illinois.
Juul Labs responded to WGN’s request for comment and the lawsuit with a statement that said:, and Adam's lawsuit, saying:
We remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes. As part of that process, we recently stopped accepting orders for our Mint JUULpods in the U.S., suspended all broadcast, print, and digital product advertising in the U.S., are investing in scientific research to ensure the quality of our FDA Premarket Tobacco Product Application (PMTA) application and expanding our commitment to develop new technology to reduce youth use. Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users. To the extent this case alleges otherwise, it is without merit.
Aside from the Hergenreder civil suit, the Lake County State's Attorney's Office has also filed a criminal suit against Juul blaming the company for marketing to teens.