RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The North Carolina State Attorney General's Office announced a series of new steps aimed at cracking down on youth e-cigarette usage during a news conference Tuesday.
Attorney General Josh Stein filed a lawsuit against the founders and early investors in JUUL, including James Monsees and Adam Bowen, alleging they "personally participated in JUUL's marketing strategy of attracting young users to their product."
"They were intimately involved in shaping JUUL's strategy of designing, marketing, and selling its product in a way that the natural consequence of which was to sell to young people. And they made collectively billions of dollars," said Stein.
Over the summer, JUUL agreed to pay North Carolina $40 million over six years and pledged to change its business practices, including no marketing to people under 21, stronger age verification protocols, and no new flavors or nicotine content levels without FDA authorization. While acknowledging the company has upheld this agreement, Stein shared concerns about others in the e-cigarette industry.
"We are concerned that other companies are filling the vacuum that was created by Juul," said Stein.
The Attorney General's Office civil investigative demands to 20 companies, including Puff Bar, as well as 15 vape stores, some of which are located near middle and high schools in the state.
"We are actively investigating Puff Bar and other companies at all stages of the distribution chain, from manufacturers to retailers and everything in between to ensure they are not profiting off kids. Where I find illegal behavior, I will not hesitate to take legal action," said Stein.
Stein and NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Betsey Tilson both expressed specific concern over the use of flavored products, which could be more attractive to youth.
According to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, "among high school current e-cigarette users, 26.1% reported their usual brand was Puff Bar, followed by Vuse (10.8%), SMOK (9.6%), JUUL (5.7%), and Suorin (2.3). Among middle school current users, 30.3% reported that their usual brand was Puff Bar, and 12.5% reported JUUL."
The researchers further found that "among current youth e-cigarette users overall, 84.7% used flavor e-cigarettes, including 85.8% of high school users and 79.2% of middle school users."
"Youth are more likely than adults to initiate tobacco products with flavored tobacco. And what data shows is that those who initiate with flavored products are more likely then to continue with tobacco use and nicotine use down the road," said Dr. Tilson, who added that 20% of youth in North Carolina used e-cigarette products.
Youth e-cigarette use has dropped in 2021 compared to 2020, though still remains a key point of emphasis for state leaders. Part of this summer's $40 million settlement with JUUL is earmarked for programs aimed helping people quit the products, prevent e-cigarette addiction, and research e-cigarettes.
Stein also shared a letter with FDA Commissioner Nominee Robert Califf, urging the agency to take action on and pay close attention to flavored e-cigarette products and nicotine concentration.
"Our actions today are not to deprive adult purchasers of this product. So if there is a traditional cigarette smoker who wants to try an e-cigarette, then they have that right. Our concern are these flavors which don't exist in cigarettes but certainly serve to appeal to young people," Stein said.
In the spring, The Poe Center held a Youth-Led Tobacco-Free Community Forum, where a speaker drew attention to the high number of vape shops located near her school in Wake County.
ABC11 reached out to Puff Bar for a comment, but has not received a response as of publication. A JUUL spokesperson did not have a comment at this time.