Exclusive: With feds slow to act, states target e-cigarette sales to minors

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Frustrated by the slow pace of federal action, state attorneys general are waging their own campaigns against the sale and advertising of e-cigarettes to minors.

More than a dozen AGs, including those in New York, California, Indiana and Ohio, are using new state and local laws – some of which they helped craft – to put pressure on the industry at all levels, from neighborhood vape shops to big tobacco companies like Altria Group (MO.N) and Reynolds American Inc (RAI.N).

Much of the campaign so far has involved threats to sue violators or appeals to a company’s sense of responsibility, though some lawsuits have been filed, too.

State actions have accelerated in the wake of government data released in April, which showed that teen use of e-cigarettes tripled in 2014 alone, making them more common for youngsters than tobacco.

“The key is to avoid another generation being addicted to nicotine,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in an interview.

State attorneys general played a pivotal role during the 1990s in battling tobacco companies over conventional cigarettes.

The Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), an accord reached in November 1998 between the state attorneys general of 46 states, five U.S. territories, the District of Columbia and the five largest tobacco companies, resulted in significant changes to cigarette marketing and required the tobacco industry to pay the states about $10 billion annually for the indefinite future.

FEDERAL ACTION URGED

Nearly a year ago, a group of AGs asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take a tougher line on e-cigarettes, the risks and benefits of which are still being studied.

In April of 2014, the agency proposed banning the sale of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18, but did not recommend prohibiting advertising, flavored products or online sales – all of which help make the devices attractive to youngsters, according to public health advocates.

The FDA proposal has been under review ever since, which has meant that vaping remains legal for youths in states that haven’t passed laws banning it. The agency is likely to finalize its new e-cigarette regulations later this summer, though it could be several years before the federal rules go into effect.

Federal regulations and the 1998 Master Settlement prohibit makers of conventional cigarettes from targeting youth and from advertising on television, billboards and mass transit, but the rules don’t apply to e-cigarettes.

So far, however, 46 states have passed laws banning their sale to minors. Twelve of those states have also passed laws requiring child-proof packaging for e-liquids and e-cigarettes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

AGs are using these laws, as well as others not directly tied to e-cigarettes, to force companies to drop ads appealing to teens, switch to child-proof packaging and spend thousands of dollars on more vigilant age verification systems for their websites and online deliveries.

In June, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced settlements with four companies that were not complying with the state’s rule about child resistant packaging for nicotine liquids.

Reuters spoke with more than 10 e-cigarette and vaping companies – including Reynolds American, which sells Vuse, and Altria Group, which sells MarkTen and Green Smoke – that acknowledged they have been contacted by state law enforcers or by the National Associations of Attorneys General. Reynolds and Altria say their brands were not in violation of local laws.

 

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