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L.A. city attorney accuses e-cigarette companies of illegally selling and marketing to minors

L.A. city attorney accuses e-cigarette companies of illegally selling and marketing to minors
A screenshot included in court documents filed by the Los Angeles city attorney accusing three California electronic cigarette companies of marketing nicotine products to minors and selling products without age verification. (Los Angeles City Attorney)

Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer on Wednesday announced his office is seeking injunctions against three California-based electronic cigarette companies, alleging that they sell vaping products without proper age verification and market tobacco products to underage youths.

Investigators at the city attorney’s office were able to purchase vaping devices and nicotine liquids from the companies online using the email accounts of fictitious minors and paying with gift cards, Feuer said.

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The e-cigarette companies did not ask the buyers to provide their date of birth, valid identification, or age attestation, according to court documents filed by the city attorney’s office.

The injunction requests come after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September announced a crackdown on e-cigarette manufacturers nationwide, citing an “epidemic of nicotine addiction” among American youths.

“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 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.”

The companies named in the lawsuits are Los Angeles-based VapeCo Distribution, its parent company NEwhere Inc. and Santa Barbrara-based Kandypens Inc. The city accuses those firms of selling vaping products over the internet without the use of appropriate age-verification procedures, selling new tobacco products without FDA approval, failing to use child-resistant packaging, and targeting youth in their marketing activities. The city attorney's office is seeking an injunction to stop those activities.

Requests for comment from the companies had yet to be returned Wednesday.

VapeCo and NEwhere operate websites and social media accounts that critics say glamorize vaping by featuring young models, cartoon characters and videos of vaping “tricks” where smokers blow rings against psychedelic backdrops. Various screenshots of the posts were included in the filing.

One of the companies’ retail websites — www.madhatterjuice.com — sells liquids for vaping devices that are flavored to mimic sweet candy products like lollipops and doughnuts and come in bright colors. The FDA recently sent a warning letter to the company for marketing a liquid product that resembled a popular brand’s apple juice box. That product is no longer available.

The city attorney’s office also alleges the companies’ various Instagram accounts do not use an “age gate” feature to block minors from accessing content.

The city attorney’s office also alleges that Kandypens uses product placement in music videos and in posts by “social media influences” to promote teen usage.

The company has an “artists” section on its website that features videos of pop and rap stars using their devices, including one music video for rapper DJ Khaled’s song “No Brainer” that has over 169 millions views on YouTube. In the video, the artist uses a Kandypen device.

The court documents allege that Kandypens does not use an “age gate” for its social media content and does not feature the FDA’s required health warning about the addictive properties of nicotine.

Feuer charged that the tactics represent “a very purposeful scheme to get underage youth to start to vape.”

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that e-cigarettes have become the tobacco product of choice among middle and high school students.

In 2017, 11.7% of high schoolers who participated in the CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey said they had vaped a tobacco product within the last month, up from 1.5% in 2011. In addition, 3.3% of middle school students called themselves current users of e-cigarettes, up from 0.6% in 2011.

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The city attorney’s office alleges that the companies have violated California’s Unfair Competition Law as well as California’s Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement Act, which prohibits the sale of tobacco products to people under 21.

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Feuer.

This article was originally published at 12:45 p.m.

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