North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein filed eight lawsuits against eight separate e-cigarette companies on Tuesday, alleging that the companies are "unlawfully targeting children" and not requiring appropriate age verification when selling products.
The companies included in the complaints are Beard Vape, Direct eLiquid, Electric Lotus, Electric Tobacconist, Eonsmoke, Juice Man, Tinted Brew and VapeCo, Stein said during a media conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
"There is a vaping epidemic among high schoolers and middle schoolers in North Carolina and the United States," he said. "I, as attorney general of North Carolina, refuse to stand by as e-cigarette companies entice thousands of children to use their products."
Anti-tobacco advocacy groups are applauding these lawsuits.
The nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids tweeted "thank you" to Stein for his "leadership in addressing the youth e-cigarette epidemic."
Pro-vaping groups said the lawsuits were unnecessarily punitive.
"If these companies illegally sold vaping products to a minor, they should be prosecuted, but that is not alleged in the Attorney General's press release. Instead, Attorney General Stein's strategy seems to be using the power of the state and the prospect of six or seven-figure legal bills to force small businesses to sign lopsided settlement agreements," Gregory Conley, president of the nonprofit advocacy group American Vaping Association, said in an email on Tuesday.
"While we strongly support efforts to decrease the use of these products by minors, including common sense marketing restrictions on flavor names and descriptors, we do not believe in denying adult smokers the right to access flavored harm reduction products," he said.
The lawsuits are Stein's latest effort to curb e-cigarette sales to underage youth.
In May, Stein filed a similar lawsuit against leading e-cigarette manufacturer Juul, claiming that it marketed its products to children. Discussions as part of that lawsuit are still "ongoing," he said.
That lawsuit was the first by a state over the company's alleged marketing to teens.
In response, Juul said in a statement in May 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."
Juul has maintained that its products are not for kids and are instead intended to help adults quit smoking traditional combustible cigarettes.
The new lawsuits come just days after the first known death in the United States attributable to vaping was reported in Illinois. The death was reported last week amid a growing number of lung illnesses across the country that doctors have said could be connected to e-cigarettes.
"Every day we're learning additional negative health consequences of these e-cigarette products," Stein said Tuesday. "The problems include addiction to nicotine, lung disease, emphysema."
The lawsuits allege e-cigarette companies target youth in three primary ways: through the use of flavorings and packaging; through social media and websites children are known to frequent; and through lacking appropriate age verification.
"One look at their marketing materials demonstrates just how egregious their sales tactics are -- with flavors like cotton candy, gummy bear, unicorn, and graham cracker, they're clearly targeting young people. To teenagers, the health and addiction risks of vaping are simply too high. That is why my office is asking the court to protect our kids by shutting down these operations in our state," Stein said in a press release following his call with reporters Tuesday.
It's estimated that nearly one in five high schoolers and one in 20 middle school students use e-cigarettes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes rose from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million last year -- a difference of about 1.5 million youth.