The top law enforcement officer in Massachusetts has launched an investigation into one of the country’s largest makers of e-cigarettes.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday said her office is investigating San Francisco-based Juul Labs to determine if it is violating state law by marketing its product to minors.
" I want to know are they tracking underage use of their product?" said Healey.
"What are they doing about the rampant use of their product by teenagers? And, is this is an intentional outcome of thier own marketing sales strategy?"
Healey, who said subpoenas had been sent to Juul, said the company appears to be taking a page out of the tobacco industry playbook of a generation ago that used cartoon characters in a bid to get kids addicted to cigarettes.
Juul, which started in business just three years ago, has become one of the top sellers of e-cigarettes -- the handheld electronic devices that heat a flavored liquid containing nicotine into an inhalable vapor. Juul’s product is a slick design that resembles a USB flashdrive.
It has become so dominant in the market that vaping is often referred to as “juuling.”
In an emailed statement, Matt David, Chief Communications Office of Juul Labs, said the company “never marketed to anyone underage.” The statement highlighted a number of steps the company said it had taken to keep its product out of the hands of young people including warning labels and an e-commerce platform with strict ID and age verification technology.
Public health and anti-tobacco activists have become alarmed by recent studies that show use of e-cigarettes among high school students is skyrocketing while at the same time tobacco smoking has plummeted.
" The bottom line is this is about keeping young people healthy," said Healey. " I want parents and everyone out there to understand the pervasiveness of vaping and the harm that comes from it."
The attorney general’s office has also sent cease and desist orders to two online e-cigarette sellers accusing them of not checking the ages of their customers.
At the press conference announcing the investigation of Juul Labs, Healey displayed posters showing some of the company’s retail marketing pitch.
" Go online and Google 'juuling' and you will see social media that is so powerful and so pervasive that sensationalizes this vaping and makes it seem incredibly appealing to young people," said Healey.
Healey was joined at the news conference by Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, director of pediatric research at Mass. General Hospital's Tobacco Research and Treatment Center. He called vaping by young people a “public health emergency.”
"The adolescent brain is uniquely sensitive to nicotene, " said Wiickoff. " The younger a teen starts smoking or vaping the harder it will be to quit."
The attorney general’s action comes as vaping is getting more scrutiny on other fronts.
The legislature has passed a bill raising the legal age to purchase tobacco and e-cigarette products to 21.
In Springfield, the City Council and Public Health Council have taken steps to enact a ban on vaping in any place where tobacco smoking is prohibited.
The Massachusetts Department of Health launched a public information campaign to alert parents about the dangers of teenagers using e-cigarettes.