RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's attorney general has filed a lawsuit against a popular e-cigarette maker, asking a court to limit what flavors it can sell and ensure underage teens can't buy it.
Josh Stein, the top law enforcement official in the traditional tobacco-producing state, said in announcing his lawsuit Wednesday he's the first state attorney general to take the maker of Juul to court. The Massachusetts attorney general also announced an investigation last year into Juul's sales and marketing.
Stein accused Juul's marketing practices of causing an "epidemic" among young people through "unfair and deceptive" marketing practices at a news conference Wednesday.
"Juul entered the market with the highest nicotine potency of any product," Stein said. "Meanwhile Juul understated the strength of the nicotine in each pod, downplaying its risks."
Stein questioned why teenagers aged 15 to 17 are more likely to use Juul than Juul's supposed targeted demographic. He said it was likely because of marketing practices aimed at young people, such as using "fruit and dessert-like flavors that serve to entice children to the product."
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Holding up a Juul device, he pointed out that it looked like a flash drive, "making it cool and easy to hide."
The use of Juul among young people in the state has skyrocketed, according to Susan Kansagra, a doctor with the North Carolina Department of Public Health.
"In a span of six years we've seen a 900 percent increase in high school students reporting that they are using e-cigarettes. In 2017, about 17 percent of high schoolers reported using e-cigarettes, and that I'm confident is an underestimate, given the marketing that we've seen," Kansagra said. "Among middle school students we've seen a 400 percent increase in e-cigarettes."
A spokesman for Juul Labs said in an emailed statement that the company is also concerned about youth vaping and is already working to reduce the practice.
"We stopped the sale of non-tobacco and non-menthol based flavored JUULpods to our traditional retail store partners, enhanced our online age-verification process, strengthened our retailer compliance program with over 2,000 secret shopper visits per month, and shut down our Facebook and Instagram accounts while working constantly to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others on those platforms," the statement read.
Stein acknowledged the changes Juul has made in the past few months but pointed out that these changes are all voluntary measures that the company can countermand at any moment.
"That's why I want a court to order Juul to stop selling, to stop marketing, and to stop distributing to young people," he said. "That way we can have the assurance that we've done everything we can to protect young people here in the state."
Facing increasing scrutiny about underage smoking, Juul has recently launched a multimillion-dollar television ad campaign re-branding itself as an aid for adults trying to kick traditional cigarettes. But anti-smoking experts and activists who say the company is making unproven claims for its product have raised concerns, including a letter earlier this month urging the Food and Drug Administration to investigate the company's marketing efforts. The letter was signed by six groups including the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Neither Juul nor any other e-cigarette has been approved by the FDA to help smokers quit.