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Florida attorney general opens investigation into vaping companies’ marketing practices

“We’re looking at it, we’re going to be thorough in our investigation, and we will hold accountable any companies that are intentionally targeting and misleading our youth regarding vaping products,” Ashley Moody said.

As cases of vaping-related lung illnesses continue to surge nationwide, Florida’s attorney general announced Wednesday she is investigating nearly two dozen vaping companies that do business in the state and scrutinizing their marketing practices, particularly toward minors.

Florida law prohibits selling vaping products to anyone under 18, but youth vaping rates in the state have risen substantially, according to the state Department of Health.

State Attorney General Ashley Moody said the investigation, which follows a fact-gathering mission over the summer, will examine if how vaping products are promoted violates any laws, particularly those that prohibit selling the products to minors.

The state’s investigation joins similar efforts launched by other states including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York — and some states like Massachusetts and Montana have also announced temporary bans on some products to curb what is being called a “vaping epidemic.”

“We’re looking at it, we’re going to be thorough in our investigation, and we will hold accountable any companies that are intentionally targeting and misleading our youth regarding vaping products,” Moody said at a press conference Wednesday at a Tampa high school.

Moody added that her office would be issuing requests for information on marketing and any targeting of Florida youth to all the companies named in the investigation. She noted that those companies had been identified from some marketing materials already presented to her office and through the fact-finding mission conducted earlier this year.

But she said that the list could be added to during the ongoing investigation. “This is what our preliminary review has led us to in terms of requests for additional information,” she said.

As youth vaping rates have soared, so have cases of lung illnesses tied to the practice. Nationally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported nearly 1,300 lung cases associated with vaping or e-cigarettes as of Oct. 8, and a handful of deaths in several states.

In Florida alone, 68 cases of vaping-related lung illnesses have been reported to the state. A state Department of Health report in the spring indicated a nearly 60 percent increase in the use of e-cigarettes among high schoolers in the state from 2017 to 2018 and that nearly one in four Florida high school students say they are vaping.

The vaping companies under investigation in Florida include Njoy and JUUL — the latter unsuccessfully backed legislation in Tallahassee earlier this year to raise the smoking age to 21 as part of its stated effort to curb youth vaping.

But critics said JUUL also pushed language that session to pre-empt local governments from implementing stricter marketing regulations than the state, in an effort to block municipal efforts to further restrict vaping. The overall ban is being proposed again as legislation for the upcoming legislative session in January.

The company has also recently been an active political donor, giving $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida during the last quarter.

The vaping industry as a whole has come under fire both at the state and national level over the diseases. Last month, federal officials urged the public to stop using e-cigarettes, particularly those with products containing THC, as they study what might be responsible for the lung illnesses. Symptoms have included coughing, difficulty breathing, chest pains and nausea.

Just as Moody took the microphone at Plant High School a few miles away, the Hillsborough County Commission put its Wednesday meeting on hold for the first of two public hearings on the board’s own effort to curb youth vaping.

Last month, the board gave initial approval to an ordinance that would raise the legal age requirement for purchasing vaping products in Hillsborough County from 18 to 21 years old.

If formally approved, Hillsborough's would be the first local government in Florida to enact such age-based restrictions. It’s a move that’s gaining traction following the governor of Michigan’s decision to enact the first state-wide ban on flavored e-cigarettes last month.

Not only would it be illegal for stores to sell products to under-aged customers, but Hillsborough’s proposed ordinance -- brought to the board by Commissioner Sandy Murman — would also make it illegal for anyone under 21 to possess vaping products.

The penalty for getting caught would be a $100 fine and a second-degree misdemeanor charge. A second offense would come with a $200 fine, and a third would be punishable by a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

The proposal drew criticism from a packed audience Wednesday. One after the other, 12 local business owners, vape shop employees and smoke-free advocates expressed the same concerns.

“Most glaringly,” said South Tampa vape shop owner Michael Cherup, “this ordinance doesn’t address cigarettes or tobacco products at all.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that any adults using vape products to quit smoking should continue to do so instead of turning back to cigarettes, Brandon Vape owner Patricia Cosgrove said.

“I do feel that we need to raise the age limit, but a person who has already started vaping should not be forced to go back to cigarettes if they still feel that they are hooked on nicotine,” Cosgrove said. “I feel that maybe we should put an ordinance in there to grandfather these people in, because if they’re already doing it and then you take their rights away and tell them it’s illegal, it just doesn’t seem like a fair thing to do.”

Sean Allen, store manager for one of eight Vape Unlimited shops in the area, also called for a grandfather clause.

“I fought for six years in the U.S. Army, and coming from a military standpoint you’re now turning 18 to 20 year-olds into criminals, telling them ‘we can put a gun in your hand and you can go fight overseas but you can’t use a vape, you can only smoke cigarettes’.”

The county’s ordinance also cites reports linking serious illnesses and even deaths to e-cigarette and vape usage that have already become out of date as more research into the long-term effects of vaping have come to light, local business owner Shannon Whitesell said. Ongoing studies by the Centers for Disease Control have proven many of those health concerns are linked to black market THC products, not vaping itself.

Dolores Orlando, treasurer of the Florida Smoke Free Association, said her organization, which advocates for responsible vape shop owners and consumers, is working to pass similar legislation next year aimed at restricting teen vape usage.

“We agree with the overall spirit of the attempt to raise the age of purchase to 21, however we respectfully request that you would apply that same theory to traditional cigarettes as well,” Orlando said. “Enforcement will be key, with authority given to schools to address this issue, and the county should engage with the experts. We’re here to help you.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed reporting.

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