Online Vape Stores Sold To Underage NYers, City Lawsuit Says
NEW YORK — New York City has sued nearly two dozen online vape stores accused of making it too easy for kids to buy electronic cigarettes.
The complaint filed Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court marks New York officials’ latest effort to crack down on the vaping industry amid growing concerns about the health risks electronic cigarettes pose to young people.
“The kids of New York are the pride of our city, but to these companies, they’re just a source of profit,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday. “Preying on minors and hooking them on a potentially lethal, lifelong nicotine addiction is unconscionable.”
The 22 digital merchants’ failure to verify their customers’ ages allowed underage New Yorkers to buy vaping products from them in violation of city law during a summertime sting operation, the complaint alleges.
The national retailers also create a “public health nuisance” by appealing to vulnerable youths with vape products flavored like “children’s breakfast cereals” and devices small enough for kids to hide from their parents, the lawsuit says.
The city filed the lawsuit the same day state officials confirmed New York’s first vaping death. The 17-year-old Bronx boy who died Friday from a vaping-related respiratory sickness appears to be the 20th such fatality across the country.
Only four of the vaping companies named in the lawsuit — all of which are based in other states — immediately responded to Patch’s requests for comment Wednesday. Three of them said they take age verification concerns seriously, while a fourth dismissed the city’s allegations.
To test how easy the websites made it for youths to buy vape products, the city Sheriff’s Office supervised two buyers younger than the city’s legal smoking age of 21 buy items from each of the merchants in July and August, officials say.
None of the sites have an “age gate” feature barring users younger than 21 from getting in, according to the complaint. And no one had to show identification when the products the decoys bought were delivered, the lawsuit says.
Six of the companies made the underage sales despite the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning them last year not to sell vape products to minors, according to the suit. One firm was previously reported to the Better Business Bureau and another has been sued by the City of Chicago over underage sales, the complaint says.
The lawsuit also contains several images illustrating how the sellers offer enticing flavors and market to youth online. The pictures show products flavored like butterscotch, Nerds candy and “Fruity Cereal,” as well as social media posts the city says are meant to appeal to young people.
“We’ve asked the Court to require these retailers to comply with the law and pay damages towards the costs of abating the crisis of underage e-cigarette use within the City,” Georgia M. Pestana, the city’s acting corporation counsel, said in a statement.
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Texas-based Artisan Vapor Company is looking into how the city’s decoy was able to make a purchase on its website, said Mirza Baig, the firm’s director of development.
Artisan uses a third-party age verification service that requires customers to enter a photo ID or Social Security number to ensure compliance with federal, state and local laws, Baig said, adding the company is an “adult-oriented business.”
“We take it very seriously,” Baig told Patch in a phone interview. “We are not in the business of selling to minors or anybody who’s not of legal age to buy.”
Georgia-based Heather’s Heavenly Vapes said it also has systems in place to prevent underage online sales, adding that it is “looking into the matter.”
“We take age verification very seriously,” the company said in an email. “We are not in the business of selling to anyone who is not of legal age to buy our products.”
A representative for the Missouri-based firm The Vape Mall who identified himself as George questioned the veracity of the city’s accusations that underage buyers were able to make purchases.
“It sounds like bull—- to me,” George told Patch by phone before hanging up the call.
A representative for South Carolina-based iVape declined to comment on pending litigation in an email, but said the company “does not, nor has it ever, targeted its products to anyone under the legal smoking age.”