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Source: Washington State News

AG investigators posed as minors, caught seven companies violating age verification law

SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced the results of a sweep cracking down on illegal internet vaping sales into Washington. As a result of the sweep, five companies caught violating Washington’s age verification law including one based in Spokane will pay a total of $132,000 to the Attorney General’s Office, which will go toward continued enforcement of the law. Moreover, the five companies entered into legally binding agreements to change their advertising and online sales practices to comply with Washington’s youth access law. The Attorney General’s Office has or will file lawsuits against two more companies for the same issues.

Investigators from the Attorney General’s Office assembled a list of 148 online sellers of vapor products. The investigators then posed as minors or used false identifying information and attempted to make purchases of nicotine-containing vapor products. Washington’s law requires stringent age verification for online sales of vapor products. For example, vapor product sellers must verify the buyer’s age using a third-party service to crosscheck and confirm the buyer’s identity.

Seven of the 148 targets illegally sold products to the Attorney General’s investigators without verifying the ages of the purchasers, including one that completed the sale even when the investigator indicated they were 17 years old.

The sweep represents a continuation of Ferguson’s efforts to reduce youth access to vaping products. In 2016, Ferguson helped draft Washington’s age verification law. In 2019, he co-led the effort to pass legislation raising the purchase age to 21 for vapor and tobacco products. The new minimum age went into effect on January 1. In September, Ferguson sued JUUL, the largest e-cigarette company in the nation, for illegally targeting underage consumers in its advertising and product design.

“Parents are working hard to combat the youth vaping epidemic, but it can be a challenge,” Ferguson said. “That challenge becomes more difficult when companies don’t respect the rules. Companies that sell vapor products in Washington must follow our laws.”

Targets

Five of the companies caught in the Attorney General’s sweep all signed legally binding agreements to change their advertising and online sales practices to comply with Washington’s law. The companies that sold higher volumes of vapor products online or did not have a license will pay more to resolve the investigation and avoid a lawsuit. Collectively, the five companies sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in products into the state over the past four years.

The five companies that cooperated with Ferguson’s investigation will pay the following amounts to the Attorney General’s Office:

  • VanVal Vapor, based in Spokane, will pay $30,000.
  • Zenith, based in New York, will pay $50,000.
  • Local Vape, based in Henderson, Nevada, will pay $25,000.
  • Northland Vapor, based in Moorhead, Minnesota, will pay $7,000.
  • WOV, based in Castle Rock, Colorado, will pay $20,000.

Two of these companies, Local Vape and Zenith, also did not have the license required to ship vapor products to consumers. As part of their legally binding agreement, they will obtain a license before making any further sales into Washington state.

The Attorney General’s sting caught two additional companies that failed to cooperate with the investigation. Ferguson brought a lawsuit in August against E-Juice Vapors, a California corporation, for similar violations, including failure to obtain a license. E-Juice Vapors did not report their sales into the state. That lawsuit is ongoing.

A seventh company, Vaping Zone, based in South Carolina, also failed to follow Washington’s law, including obtaining a license. Vaping Zone only recently obtained legal counsel. They are on a short timeline to reach a resolution, or the office will file a lawsuit.

The vaping sweep

To conduct the sweep, investigators reviewed 148 websites offering online sales of vapor products.

In order to sell vapor products to Washington residents, retailers must do the following:

  • Clearly state Washington’s minimum legal age of purchase on their website.
  • Use a third-party verification service to confirm the purchaser’s name, age, and residential address
  • The retailer then needs to verify the credit card information, and it has to match the information the purchaser provides.
  • Then they have to get a signed certification from the purchaser, saying they are who they say they are, and they are of legal age to purchase vapor products.
  • When the package ships, the shipping documents need to clearly state the package contains vapor products.
  • And the package needs to contain information about Washington law regarding the purchase of vapor products by minors.

None of these seven companies did any of these things. In addition, four of the companies did not have a license to ship these products to consumers.

Many sites used an “age gate,” requiring visitors to either confirm they were of “legal smoking age,” or enter their birth date to confirm their age. Investigators tried to enter a birth date for a 17-year-old into the age gate on each site. All but one rejected that attempted purchase. Northland Vapor allowed what could have been a 17-year-old to purchase vapor products.

If the investigators got rejected by the age gate, they entered a fake birth date indicating they were of legal age, and used fake identifying information to make their purchase. If a company was following our law, this information was impossible to verify, and they were not allowed to make a purchase.  All five retailers allowed purchases with the false information, meaning a minor could easily purchase vapor products.

All of the items investigators purchased had flavors advertised as either fruit, candy or other novelty flavors.

Ferguson’s September lawsuit against JUUL asserts it violated the state Consumer Protection Act by designing and marketing its products to appeal to underage consumers and deceiving consumers about the addictiveness of its product. JUUL’s unlawful conduct fueled a pervasive and staggering rise in e-cigarette use and nicotine addiction among youth.

Assistant Attorney General Brendan Selby and investigators Tony Perkins and Eric Peters are handling the cases for the office’s Complex Litigation Division.

The Complex Litigation Division provides representation on the office’s most difficult, challenging and high profile cases. It also fulfills a leading role for the office in the enforcement of the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. This includes monitoring and enforcing violations of advertising restrictions by the major tobacco companies, multi-state litigation of payment disputes and assistance with implementation of the public health provisions. Regulatory enforcement of the emerging e-cigarette and vaping industries is an increasing portion of this role.

Youth vaping epidemic

The use of e-cigarettes among teenagers has skyrocketed. For example, in 2016, 13 percent of high school sophomores in Washington used vaping products. In 2018, that number nearly doubled to 21 percent.  In 2011, less than one percent (0.6) of middle schoolers used e-cigarettes. By 2019, one in 10 middle schoolers nationwide used e-cigarettes. This increase is undoing decades of advances in driving down youth smoking rates. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, vaping use among youth has reached “epidemic proportions.”

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The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.

Media Contact:

Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753 2727; Brionna.aho@atg.wa.gov

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