Just as health care and anti-smoking advocates were making progress in reducing the number of teen smokers in the United States 25 years ago, along came electronic or e-cigarettes.
First introduced to the global market in 2004 by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik, e-cigarettes have gained in popularity in both the United States and the United Kingdom. "Vaping," a simulated smoking technique using e-cigarettes to heat a liquid to generate a vapor and then inhaling it, are popular among young adults and teenagers.
Much like tobacco manufacturers, e-cigarette companies have targeted young adults and teens in their marketing campaigns, using slick, colorful ads and selling their products in various flavors.
But law enforcement officials have long been suspicious of how electronic cigarettes are marketed, and last week Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed injunctions against three e-cigarette companies: Los Angeles–based VapeCo and its parent company, NEwhere Inc.; and Kandypens Inc.
The lawsuit alleges the companies failed to take necessary legal steps to ensure minors do not purchase vaping products on their websites.
"Underage vaping is an emerging public health epidemic, and luring kids to use dangerous and addictive vaping products, as we allege here, has got to stop," Feuer said in a statement. "In fact, kids shouldn't have access to these products at all. The lawsuits we filed today send a strong message that if you put children at risk for the sake of profit, you'll face serious consequences."
On multiple occasions, Feuer's office was able to purchase various e-cigarette products from the defendants' websites during undercover operations, posing as teen customers and using fake email accounts and a prepaid gift card. At no point did the companies request a valid form of government identification or otherwise verify the age of the customer, as required by California law, according to the city attorney's office.
"Los Angeles–based VapeCo and its parent company, NEwhere Inc., own and control at least three vaping retail websites, including www.newhere.com, www.madhatterjuice.com and www.vapeco.com, each offering e-liquids and related vaping devices," according to Feuer's office.
The defendants allegedly have no U.S. Federal Drug Administration approval for most, if not all, of the products they offer for sale.
Representatives of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, which bills itself as a "nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that promotes tobacco harm reduction," declined to comment on the injunctions.
On Oct. 31, the same day Feuer announced the injunctions, the FDA, which has called rising rates in underage vaping an "epidemic," asked electronic cigarette manufacturers to help self-regulate. "[In September], I issued a call to action — to the FDA and to the e-cigarette industry — to stem the alarming increase in youth use of e-cigarettes. For the FDA, that has included an escalating series of steps that utilize the full range of our regulatory authorities, including increased enforcement of age- and identification-verification requirements, as well as re-examining aspects of our comprehensive plan on tobacco and nicotine regulation in order to strengthen our Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan," wrote FDA director Scott Gottlieb, M.D.
"For the e-cigarette industry, my message was simple: Step up. Even as the FDA builds a framework to mandate additional restrictions and actions to address these trends, we welcome voluntary steps by companies to address these concerns. I asked five manufacturers whose products, collectively, represent more than 97 percent of the current market for closed-system e-cigarettes to meet with me personally to discuss this vital public health challenge, as well as to submit written plans outlining the steps they intend to take to confront the rising trends in youth use," Gottlieb continued.
"Each of these companies markets products that recently had been sold illegally to minors, either through brick-and-mortar stores or online retailers. Everyone involved in this market has a shared responsibility to address this public health crisis," he said.
Consumer Advocates for Smoke Free Alternatives Associationn CEO Alex Clark does not dispute the claim that vaping among teens has escalated. "A lot of us had expected that we would see higher rates of vaping among teenagers," Clark said.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But Clark says scientists aren't looking at the right numbers when they track electronic cigarette smoking among teens. "The real number is how many people have used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days," said Clark, who added that there was "no credible evidence to suggest that these young people are transitioning to cigarettes."
Clark also challenged the government's request that e-cigarette firms help police the industry. "The FDA had an opportunity to include industry guidance in how these products should be sold online and they chose not to do so," he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is addictive and toxic to developing fetuses. Nicotine exposure also can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.
One e-cigarette aerosol can contain chemicals that are harmful to the lungs. And youth e-cigarette use is associated with the use of other tobacco products, including cigarettes, scientists say.