RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
North Carolina is opening a new front in the war against nicotine. Last spring, the attorney general, Josh Stein, sued the country's most popular maker of e-cigarettes, Juul. And yesterday, the AG filed suit against another eight companies who make similar products. Stein accuses the companies of aggressively targeting children and teens in their marketing. Electric Tobacconist, one of the companies named in the lawsuit, released a statement yesterday saying, quote, "we absolutely affirm that these products don't belong in the hands of children." But Attorney General Stein says the flavors offered by vaping companies make it clear who they're targeting.
JOSH STEIN: Bubble gum, fudge, French toast, gummy bear, unicorn - these are all names that are designed to appeal to young people. In fact, ask young people. There's survey data that shows, why do you vape, and flavors are the No. 1 reason why they vape. And Congress passed a law saying that tobacco manufacturers could no longer produce flavored cigarettes. There only remains tobacco flavored and menthol flavored cigarettes because we know that these flavors are what hook kids to nicotine.
MARTIN: Of course, the position that Juul has taken, and other e-cigarette companies, is that their motivation is to reduce the number of American adults who smoke cigarettes, that this is a way to wean them off of nicotine. And you're saying that intentionally or not, they are creating new nicotine users.
STEIN: Well, one, I don't believe them. But one of these companies I sued, Eonsmoke, has an Instagram photo that they put out there of their product, and it's a USB drive just like Juul. It looks like that.
MARTIN: That's what these mechanisms look like, these...
MARTIN: They look like USB drives that you could sneak into a classroom.
STEIN: And put in a backpack - and, frankly, most parents aren't going to have the first clue what it is. And what the picture is underneath it, the caption says, Mom, it's a USB drive. That is expressly targeted to students. And I want to shut that practice down in my state.
MARTIN: Is there any difference between the suit that you put forward this week against these eight companies and the suit you filed in the spring against Juul?
STEIN: They're conceptually similar. Juul is the 800-pound gorilla. There are tens of thousands of North Carolinian teenagers addicted to nicotine who but for Juul would not be. And they have to help remedy that situation that they created.
MARTIN: The CDC recently linked one death to lung disease caused by vaping. So far, that's the only fatality linked directly to vaping. There may be other adverse effects, but is the science conclusive about the potential of fatalities as a result of vaping?
STEIN: Well, it's the first known death. But the problem with these products, just as cigarettes, isn't that you take it and you die; although, sadly, this person in Illinois did. The concern is the long-term health implications. The amount of nicotine the teenagers get from vaping is substantially more than what they would get if they were smoking traditional cigarettes. Do not take that as an endorsement for kids to smoke regular cigarettes. They're incredibly addictive as well. But it just underscores how dangerous these drugs are. And the long-term lung damage - we have absolutely no idea. And there's an entire generation of teens that are essentially health guinea pigs for these vaping companies. That's - it's inexcusable.
MARTIN: Are you trying to lay the groundwork for a new master settlement like the one in the '90s that saw tobacco companies agree to pay more than $200 billion over 25 years?
STEIN: I am doing everything in my power to prevent another generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine. How we get there, I'm open to any manner of ideas. I believe the FDA should take much stronger action than it has to date. I appreciate their concern about this issue, but they need to translate that concern into action. I think Congress needs to take strong action. But I'm going to exercise my authority to the fullest to protect teenagers in North Carolina.
MARTIN: North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, thank you so much for your time.
STEIN: Rachel, thanks so much.
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