NC Attorney General opens e-cigarette investigation, sues Juul founders over youth vaping concerns

Nov 18, 2021

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein held a news conference Tuesday announcing a lawsuit and investigation into electronic cigarette companies and retailers over concerns about youth marketing and poor age verification. Meredith Radford has this feature report for Public Radio East.

  

Attorney General Josh Stein announced an investigation into the company Puff Bar, which makes disposable e-cigarettes in flavors, including fruits and desserts, that Stein calls "kid-friendly." Stein says Puff Bar and other companies like it are filling the space left in the youth vaping market that Juul Labs created.   

 

“Too many actors, all across the electronic cigarette industry are operating in reckless ways that threaten North Carolina children. If and when m y investigation uncovers any illegal activity, I will not hesitate to take appropriate action.”   

  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned flavors other than menthol and tobacco in cartridge-based e-cigarettes early last year. This allowed for the sale of flavored, disposable e-cigarettes to continue. Disposables were the most used type of e-cigarette device among youth this year, according to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey. 

 

Stein says that his investigations against e- cigarette companies are not meant to limit adults from trying them, but to prevent use in young people.    

  

“Our concern are these flavors, which don’t exist in cigarettes, but certainly serve to appeal to young people.”   

    

He says his office is putting together a curriculum designed to prevent e-cigarette use.   

  

 “It will be made free of charge to every North Carolina high school and it’s our genuine hope that it gets integrated into their curriculum, because this is one of the most pressing public health issues facing teens in America today.”   

 

State Health Director and NC Department of Health and Human Services Chief Medical Officer Dr. Betsey Tilson says almost a third of youth and young adults in North Carolina use tobacco products, about 20% using e-cigarettes.      

  

According to a NCDHHS survey, the most common way for kids in the state aged 13-17 to get e-cigarettes is from a friend. And over 75% of people under 21 who got e-cigarettes from social sources got them from someone who is also under 21, despite that being the federal legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products.   

  

Tilson says youth and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the effects of nicotine. 

  

“And specifically, the nicotine affects the development of what we call our prefrontal cortex, this frontal lobe that does a higher level of thinking, our executive thinking. Thinking about complex problem solving, memory, learning, impulse control, all of that is developing the same time as youth are using nicotine.”   

  

She says the effects of nicotine addiction on young brains can be lifelong, and that young people who become addicted to nicotine are more likely to use other addictive substances. She adds that flavors make it easier for youth to use nicotine, and that in this year’s National Youth Tobacco Survey, 85% of those who used e-cigarettes used flavored ones.   

  

Along with Puff Bar, the investigation includes distributors and retailers across the state who sell flavored e-cigarettes, especially those located near schools. Stein also announced a letter to FDA Commissioner nominee Robert Califf urging him to ban flavors other than tobacco.      

  

“Until the FDA takes decisive action across the industry and across the nation, state attorneys general will be playing Whack-a-Mole with one company after the next.”      

  

Stein is also suing Juul founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen, alleging their personal participation in Juul’s marketing to young users.   

  

“They put their desire for money over the health of America’s children and that’s not only immoral, it’s unlawful.”   

  

 Stein filed the first state lawsuit against Juul for advertising to minors, which led to a judgment against the company requiring it to pay $40 million to the state and make business changes to prevent children from buying their products. He says the first payment from Juul, which is around $13 million, will be split between efforts for treatment and prevention.   

 

For Public Radio East, I’m Meredith Radford