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NYC files federal lawsuit accusing 22 online sellers of targeting young with flavored e-cigarettes

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

New York City has filed a federal lawsuit against 22 online sellers of flavored e-cigarettes.

The suit accuses the 22 of illegally selling to minors, targeting young people via social media, and luring them with flavors such as “Lemon Twist,” “Freddy’s Pebbles” and “Whipped Salted Caramel.”

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in US District Court in Brooklyn, accuses the defendants of creating “a public nuisance” by selling e-cigarettes to people under 21 even though such sales have been prohibited in the city since 2013.

“Preying on minors and hooking them on a potentially lethal, lifelong nicotine addiction is unconscionable,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “This lawsuit sends a message: we will do whatever it takes to protect our kids and the health of our city.”

The suit comes as state and local governments across the nation have taken steps to limit children’s access to e-cigarettes.

New York state health officials, for instance, voted last month to ban sales of most flavored e-cigarettes. The ban is to stand for 90 days as a piece of emergency legislation. It would need to be renewed to continue. Earlier last month, Michigan became the first state to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

Most of the 22 defendants named in the federal suit filed this week did not immediately respond to a request from CNN for comment via their websites.

One firm, iVape Distributions, said in an email that it did not know about the suit, declined to comment on pending litigation, and said it has never targeted its products to “anyone under the legal smoking age.” Another, Heather’s Heavenly Vapes, said by email: “We take age verification very seriously. We are not in the business of selling to anyone who is not of legal age to buy our products. We have store and online systems in place to protect against underage sales. We are looking into the matter.”

The suit says many of the online sellers do not use age verification services, which check databases of government records to verify the identity and age of purchasers. Many purchases went through even though the buyers indicated they were younger than 21, according to the suit.

In July and August, the city conducted a series of test purchases from online retailers, the suit says.

Two city residents over the age of 18 but under 21 were able to purchase e-cigarette products from the defendants, according to the suit. The underage purchasers created an email account and used prepaid Visa gift cards to purchase e-cigarette products from each defendant.

Offers of ‘child-friendly flavors” coupled with “sleek and high-tech” e-cigarette devices, suit says

“The Defendants shipped all of the purchased e-cigarette products to an address controlled by the New York City Sheriff’s Office and located in New York City,” the suit says. “The products arrived addressed to one of the Jane Does, both of whom were underage individuals. The deliveries were made without any requirement of a signature or to show identification.”

The suit says that as recently as 2017, 1 in 6 public high school students reported having used e-cigarettes within the past month. Nationwide, e-cigarette use by high school students jumped by 78% between 2017 and 2018, and rates of current ecigarette use by middle school students increased by 48% during the same period, according to the suit.

“Defendants target youth in multiple ways, including by offering flavored e-liquids designed to mimic the taste of candy, children’s breakfast cereals or sugary beverages, by selling small and inconspicuous devices that are easy for children to conceal from their parents, and by marketing on social media platforms that are popular with teens,” the suit says.

As of last month, there were at least 74 confirmed cases of people with serious lung illness after vaping in New York state, according to state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. Around the United States, more than two dozen deaths have been linked to vaping-related illnesses, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal suit said “the appeal of child-friendly flavors” is coupled with offers of “sleek and high-tech” e-cigarette devices.

“Defendants supplement the content on their websites with content on social-media platforms that likewise appeals to and targets young people, including depicting e-liquids alongside the candies or children’s cereals that the e-liquids allegedly taste like, images and videos of vape tricks, and featuring images of young people, who appear to be high school age, vaping,” the suit says.

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