Last week, North Carolina became the first state to file a lawsuit against Juul Labs Inc., maker of a top-selling electronic cigarette, contending that it targets underage youths with its products. Others may follow.
We appreciate that N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has taken the lead in protecting our children from manipulative advertising that could have deadly results.
“Juul’s business practices are not only reckless, they’re illegal, and I intend to put a stop to them,” Stein said in a statement. “We cannot allow another generation of young people to become addicted to nicotine.”
The last decade has seen a rise in the use of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, and much of that rise has been among underage users. In North Carolina, e-cig use among high school students has risen a staggering 894% percent between 2011 and 2017, according to the North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey.
Those numbers contribute to the more than 28% of N.C. youth who use tobacco products.
E-cigarettes themselves are often portrayed as a safer option than traditional cigarettes. They don’t carry the heavy, lingering scent of tobacco, which probably helps them appear less harmful.
Their cyberpunk “vibe” also makes them seem edgy and rebellious — always a good lure for American youth — and, to make matters worse, they have been offered in flavors that seem expressly designed to appeal to young consumers.
But e-cigs still contain nicotine in levels that can be both harmful and addictive.
“And there’s a growing body of evidence that nicotine can harm the developing adolescent brain,” said Brian King, deputy director for research translation in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office on Smoking and Health.
For its part, Juul, which entered the mainstream retail marketplace in 2015, says it shares Stein’s concerns and has been more aggressive than anyone in the industry in combating youth usage.
Juul has taken some very public steps to reduce underage use. It has joined Philip Morris USA and Reynolds Tobacco in advocating to raise the purchasing age from 18 to 21 for all tobacco products.
In November, Juul withdrew flavors such as creme, cucumber, fruit and mango from convenience stores and vape shops, leaving only tobacco, mint and menthol.
But those flavors are still available for order from its website, which Stein says uses “lax age verification techniques for online purchases that allowed purchasers to avoid or circumvent age requirements.”
Children are going to be rebellious. They’re going to find ways to differentiate themselves from their parents and other adults. That’s natural.
We can’t stop it all. But we can certainly discourage its most harmful elements and encourage healthier pursuits.
The legislature also could help curb youth smoking by passing bipartisan House Bill 725, which would commit $17 million in each of the next two budget years toward anti-youth-smoking efforts, as well as another $17.5 million to the Golden Leaf Foundation.
And the producers of tobacco products can be required to be more responsible. We cannot allow them to lure our children into a habit that we know has deadly consequences.