The state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit Tuesday against eight more electronic-cigarette manufacturers, claiming they target underage youths with flavored products.

None of the e-cigarette defendants — Beard Vape, Direct eLiquid, Electric Lotus, Electric Tobacconist, Eonsmoke, Juice Man, Tinted Brew and VapeCo. — has operations in North Carolina.

Attorney General Josh Stein said the lawsuits were brought under the N.C. Unfair or Deceptive Trade Practices Act. He is requesting that a judge shut down sales from these companies in the state.

He alleges the companies “are aggressively targeting children and do not require appropriate age verification, if at all, when selling these dangerous and addictive products. They are clearly not targeting adults.”

“We simply cannot have another generation addicted to nicotine.”

Stein claims the defendants market and sell products with sweet, fruit and candy flavors, such as donuts, Johnny creampuff, apple juice, humble crumble, juiceman, bubble gum, cotton candy, gummy bear, unicorn and graham cracker.

He cited their marketing of products on social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat.

Gregory Conley, president of American Vaping Association, said Eonsmoke makes a Juul knockoff that’s also being sued by the Massachusetts attorney general. Electric Tobacconist is a large e-commerce site, “but tiny compared to Juul,” Conley said.

“None of these are big guys. They’re mostly professional small businesses with under 40 employees.”

Taking Juul lawsuit approach

Stein’s lawsuit is similar in approach to the avalanche of county- and state-level lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers to thwart product usage.

Stein is taking a similar legal tactic to the complaint he filed in May against Juul Labs Inc., maker of top-selling Juul.

He wants a judge to require Juul to: cease selling e-cigs to N.C. minors; limit the flavors sold in the state; stop advertising and marketing practices that are intended to or likely to appeal to minors; and delete all data for customers whom Juul cannot confirm are at least 18.

Stein is requesting civil penalties and disgorgement of Juul profits from “its unfair and deceptive practices to the state.” Stein said he is talking with Juul to take preliminary steps toward self-imposing marketing and sales restrictions in N.C.

There are no current plans by Stein to take similar legal action against R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., Fontem Ventures (makers of blu eCigs) and NJoy regarding their flavored products.

Juul decided in November, in response to increasing Food and Drug Administration scrutiny, to remove from retail its creme, cucumber, fruit and mango flavors. Reynolds and NJoy since have chipped slightly at Juul’s dominant market share in part by keeping their flavorings in the marketplace.

“We’re going after the ones that we think are having the most negative impact on young people, and Juul is the dominant market player,” Stein said.

AG spokeswoman Laura Brewer later said that Stein “is looking closely at this industry as a whole. When action is appropriate, he takes it.”

Vaping and schools

Stein said the lawsuits are timed in part with the opening of the school year, with an emphasis on raising awareness of the health risks for high-schoolers, particularly those entering the ninth grade.

“Those students are going to learn that (school) bathrooms are no longer called bathrooms, but vape rooms,” Stein said. “We are hearing new stories about the health risks associated with e-cigarettes on a daily basis.

“Our complaints allege that these eight e-cig companies are helping to fuel an epidemic of vaping among high school and middle school students.”

While traditional cigarette use among teens has dropped from 28% in 2000 to just above 5% in 2017, e-cigarette use is approaching 30% among high-schoolers.

Stein said health risks from vaping can include nicotine addiction, nicotine poisoning, heart disease, lung disease and behavior changes.

On Aug. 16, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued a recommendation that consumers of vaping products should stop using them while it investigates three cases involving a severe lung disease possibly linked to vaping. The number of cases is up to 15.

Juul dominance

Juul entered the mainstream retail marketplace in 2015 and has proven that a startup manufacturer can compete with the Big Three manufacturers: Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and ITG.

The e-cig is sold in the form of a pen or a USB flash drive that’s easy to use — and hide — because the vapor typically does not have a smell and quickly dissipates.

Juul holds 73.4% of the U.S. e-cig market share, according to an August Nielsen report on convenience-store data. Reynolds’ Vuse is at 11.6%.

The FDA launched its youth e-cig campaign in April 2017 targeting Juul. Juul said it has addressed many of the issues cited by Stein and the FDA.

Juul, along with Philip Morris USA and Reynolds, have been advocating in recent months to raise the purchasing age from 18 to 21 for all tobacco products.

Stein said he supports age-21 legislation that was not acted upon during the current session, including limiting e-cigarettes flavors to only the tobacco and menthol flavorings legal for traditional cigarettes.

Juul’s creme, cucumber, fruit and mango flavors remain available at www.juul.com, but with heightened age-restriction policies and age-21 verification that requires consumers to provide their name, date of birth, permanent address and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Juul said in a statement Tuesday that “we share the attorney general’s concerns about youth vaping, which is why we have been cooperating with his office and why we have taken the most aggressive actions of anyone in the industry to combat youth usage.”

Among those steps has been closing its Facebook and Instagram accounts “while working constantly to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others on those platforms.”

“We continue to develop technologies to further restrict underage access.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com

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@rcraverWSJ

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