RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s attorney general is suing a popular e-cigarette maker, asking a court to limit what flavors it can sell and ensure underage teens can’t buy its vaping products.
Josh Stein, the top law enforcement official in the traditionally tobacco-friendly state, said Wednesday that he’s the first state attorney general to take the maker of Juul to court.
Last year, Massachusetts’ attorney general, Maura Healey, began an investigation into Juul’s sales and marketing. In April, a former Massachusetts attorney general, Martha Coakley, joined Juul Labs’ government affairs team. In a statement at the time, Coakley said she hopes to help eliminate e-cigarette use by minors.
Juul’s marketing practices are causing a health epidemic among young people with ‘‘unfair and deceptive’’ marketing practices, Stein said at a news conference Wednesday.
‘‘Juul entered the market with the highest nicotine potency of any product,’’ Stein said. ‘‘Meanwhile, Juul understated the strength of the nicotine in each pod, downplaying its risks.’’
Juul, which was launched in 2015, now controls nearly three-quarters of the $3.7 billion-dollar retail market for e-cigarettes. The explosion of underage vaping has alarmed public health officials and lawmakers. Last year, one in five US high school students reported vaping — inhaling the aerosol vapor from an e-cigarette — in the previous month, according to a government survey .
Stein said that Juul’s use among teens is higher than Juul’s supposed targeted demographic. He said that’s probably because of marketing practices aimed at young people, such as using ‘‘fruit and dessert-like flavors that serve to entice children to the product.’’
Holding up a Juul device, he pointed out that it looks like a flash drive, ‘‘making it cool and easy to hide.’’
When 16-year old Luka Kinard first tried vaping as a freshman at High Point Central High School in High Point, N.C., a city near Greensboro, he didn’t realize how dangerous the popular activity at his school could be.
‘‘For me it was just a way to fit in,’’ he said.
Kinard said he suffered health effects from a year and a half of vaping, including stunted growth, weight loss, and a seizure. Since he quit vaping in October, he has put on 20 pounds and grown 3 inches, he said.
His mother, Kelly Kinard, said she also noticed extreme behavioral changes in her son after he started vaping, including angry outbursts, a loss of interest in activities, falling grades, and high anxiety. She sent him to a treatment program in California.
‘‘I sent him because he had a substance-abuse problem. The substance was Juul,’’ she said.
The use of Juul among young people in the state has skyrocketed, with about 17 percent of high schoolers using it, said Dr. Susan Kansagra of the North Carolina Division of Public Health.
‘‘In a span of six years we’ve seen a 900 percent increase in high school students reporting that they are using e-cigarettes,’’ Kansagra said. ‘‘Among middle school students we’ve seen a 400 percent increase in e-cigarettes.’’
A spokesman for Juul Labs said in an e-mailed statement that the company is concerned about youth vaping and is working to reduce the practice.
‘‘We stopped the sale of non-tobacco and non-menthol based flavored JUULpods to our traditional retail store partners, enhanced our online age-verification process, strengthened our retailer compliance program with over 2,000 secret shopper visits per month, and shut down our Facebook and Instagram accounts,’’ the statement read.
Candy and fruit flavors of Juul are still available online. The company considers mint a menthol-based flavor, so it is still sold in stores. That’s been a point of contention for anti-smoking activists who say mint is one of the most popular e-cigarette flavors among teens. Stein’s lawsuit asked a judge for a statewide ban on the online sale of all flavors besides menthol and tobacco, including mint.
He also asked the court to prohibit Juul from using marketing and advertising practices known to appeal to minors, including sponsoring sporting, entertainment, or charity events, and to bar the company from advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds.
Stein acknowledged the changes Juul has made in the past few months after facing pressure from the federal Food and Drug Administration but pointed out they are voluntary measures the company can abandon at any moment.
‘‘That’s why I want a court to order Juul to stop selling, to stop marketing, and to stop distributing to young people,’’ he said.
Facing increasing scrutiny of underage smoking, Juul recently launched a multimillion-dollar television ad campaign, rebranding itself as an aid for adults who are trying to kick the habit of smoking regular cigarettes. But anti-smoking experts and activists say the company is making unproven claims for its product. They have urged the FDA to investigate its marketing.
No e-cigarette has been approved by the FDA to help smokers quit.