In her latest battle against the e-cigarette and vaping industry, Attorney General Maura Healey is suing a national retailer for allegedly violating Massachusetts law that regulates the sale and advertisement of tobacco, saying the company targeted underage people for sales of its nicotine products.
Healey’s complaint, filed Wednesday in Suffolk Superior Court, alleges that Eonsmoke LLC, a New Jersey company, failed for years to verify online buyers’ ages and to ensure shipments were received by a person who was 21 or older, which is the state’s minimum legal sales age for smoking products.
Michael Tolmach, Eonsmoke’s cofounder and CEO, said in an e-mail Wednesday that the company had not reviewed the complaint, but shares Healey’s concerns about youth vaping.
“[W]hich is why we have been cooperating with her office and why we have taken some of the most aggressive actions of anyone in the industry to combat youth usage including ceasing sales to the state on our website, scrubbing our social media channels, and enacting strict age verification online,” Tolmach wrote in the e-mail.
Healey’s office said Eonsmoke “willfully and repeatedly violated the state’s consumer protection law by using a marketing campaign that directly targeted underage consumers.”
“Eonsmoke took a page out of the Big Tobacco playbook by peddling nicotine to young people on social media,” Healey said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our investigations into Juul and other e-cigarette retailers continue as we seek to hold companies accountable for marketing these addictive and dangerous products to minors.”
Wednesday’s court filing marks the first lawsuit Healey has brought against such a company since her office announced an investigation into the e-cigarette industry in July, when she referred to “juuling” and vaping as “an epidemic in our schools with products that seem targeted to get young people hooked on nicotine.”
She reiterated such sentiments in early April, hours after her predecessor, Martha Coakley, announced she was taking a full-time job with the e-cigarette giant Juul Labs. During the fallout from Coakley’s decision to join Juul, Healey returned a donation that Coakley had made to her political campaign. Coakley had hired Healey more than a decade earlier at the attorney general’s office and served as a mentor to the younger lawyer.
Juul, launched in 2015, controls nearly three-quarters of the $3.7 billion retail market for e-cigarettes, the Associated Press reported.
According to Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatric researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, the use of e-cigarettes by adolescents “can cause anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and can create a threefold-increase risk that young people will smoke combustible cigarettes.”
“The addictive potential of these products is extremely high, and we must do all that we can to keep them out of the hands of young people,” he said in a statement.
Meredith Berkman, a cofounder of Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes, welcomed Healey’s lawsuit.
“We know that Eonsmoke and many others have used flavors and targeted social-media marketing to entice children to purchase their products online without requiring any age verification,” she said in a statement.
The Massachusetts legal action comes after North Carolina’s attorney general filed a suit this month against Juul for “designing, marketing, and selling its e-cigarettes to attract young people and for misrepresenting the potency and danger of nicotine in its products.”
Eonsmoke’s products, according to Healey, contain “some of the highest nicotine concentrations on the market and come in a variety of sweet and fruit flavors.”
According to the suit, Eonsmoke sells nicotine e-liquid products in dessert flavors such as “sour gummy,” “gummy bear” “donut cream,” and “cereal loops.”
The company also sells Juul-compatible pods in more than 15 “sweet fruit flavors” and markets nicotine products with “advertising content that both references youth popular culture, including memes, profanity and sexual imagery, and misleads consumers by omitting or minimizing the fact that most of its vaping products contain nicotine,” according to the lawsuit.
It also promotes its products online through social media influencers, according to the court filing. “This advertising plainly appeals to young people and contributes to youth use of vaping products,” read the complaint.
Healey’s office claims Eonsmoke did not conduct any age verification of consumers purchasing vaping products on its website from 2015 to 2018.
Things changed in September, after the attorney general’s office sent a cease-and-desist letter, according to Healey. Until that time, “underage youth across the state could freely purchase unlimited quantities of vaping products through the company’s website.”
Eonsmoke currently does not sell its products online to Massachusetts residents, according to the authorities. Healey’s complaint seeks “injunctive relief preventing Eonsmoke from continuing to engage in unfair and deceptive practices and also seeks civil penalties.”
According to Healey’s office, e-cigarette use nationwide increased nearly 48 percent for middle school students and 78 percent for high school students from 2017 to 2018. That marked the largest jump in use of any drug in more than 40 years, according to the office.
In Massachusetts, nearly half of high school students have tried e-cigarettes at least once, and nearly one-quarter reported in surveys that they had used them in the previous 30 days, the Globe reported last year.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Matt Stout and Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed. Danny McDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.