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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/THOMAS METTHE Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge speaks during a press conference on April 25, 2019, in Little Rock.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge sued three out-of-state e-cigarette merchants Thursday, three days after warning Internet vaping sellers that they can be fined up to $10,000 per occurrence for selling the devices and nicotine-based fluids to Arkansas consumers, especially children.

Rutledge invoked the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in the three separate lawsuits filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court targeting retailers in Minnesota, Utah and Arizona. Her investigators report documents of at least one illegal sale from each of the companies, including purchases made by minors acting under law enforcement supervision.

"These out-of-state retailers are illegally selling vaping products online that are dangerous to Arkansas children, and it's time to take a strong stance to stop this practice in our state," Rutledge said in a statement announcing the litigation. "It is unacceptable for retailers to exploit our youth by selling vaping products to them illegally."

E-cigarettes work by vaporizing a flavored fluid, usually nicotine based, into steam that is inhaled. Supporters say vaping is safer than smoking tobacco, but recent health studies have called that claim into question.

Shortly after Rutledge filed suit Thursday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that lung illnesses linked to vaping have reached 1,299 cases nationwide, since March, having grown by 226 over the past week.

Seven of those cases resulted in death, raising the total to 27 deaths since the unexplained outbreak came to public attention about seven months ago. Many of those who got sick had used THC, the marijuana derivative, but some had used a mixture of THC and nicotine, while others reported using only nicotine.

Rutledge launched a public information campaign about the risks of vaping for children at a health conference about educating young people about health risks with law enforcement, parents, educators and health authorities on Monday at Arkansas Children's Hospital. Rutledge held a second such meeting Wednesday in Bentonville.

Rutledge also has notified 100 online e-cigarette sellers in an "enforcement advisory" that selling or shipping tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and the related nicotine-based fluids, flavored liquids known as e-juice or liquids, to Arkansas consumers is illegal. Rutledge, a Republican midway through her last term, also warned the online marketplace eBay against selling vaping products to Arkansas consumers.

Arkansas law bars all sales of tobacco and nicotine products online, requiring purchases to be in person and over the counter to ensure that children do not obtain the products. Federal law further prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes and e-liquids to children.

The Deceptive Trade Practices law bars deceptive and unconscionable sales practices. The retailer defendants are accused of breaking the law by failing to confirm the age of its Arkansas customers, selling the products through a third-party platform to bypass age-verification requirements and shipping products to Arkansas consumers.

The suits were filed by state lawyers Charles Saunders and Shannon Halijan, Rutledge's assistants in the consumer protection division of the attorney general's office. They are asking that the companies be fined the maximum for each violation, forced to pay the attorney general's investigation expenses and be barred from conducting business in Arkansas.

The suit against Mystic Juice USA LLC and managing partner Christopher A. Schmitz accuses the Minnesota-licensed tobacco distributor, which also makes and sells e-cigarette products, with selling the e-juice through eBay to circumvent age-verification requirements and illegally shipped the vaping fluid to a Perryville teenager.

Melissa Gladden, an investigator for the attorney general, twice purchased Mystic Juice nicotine fluids, Strawberry Milk and Blueberry, through eBay, according to the lawsuit. A third purchase was made by a 16-year-old high school student in Perryville who was supervised by law enforcement, using a school computer and the Paypal account of an attorney general employee. The e-juice was mailed to the youth but a shipping error resulted in it being returned to Minnesota, the suit states. of Taylorsville, Utah, which also does business as 1 E Juice, CBD Oil Company and Tobacco 4 Less 3, with managing member, Johnson Tran of Salt Lake City, twice sold nicotine-based liquids -- Pacha Mama Salts, and Apple Cooler fluid -- to Gladden, the investigator. Authorities have documented a third sale of the Apple Cooler fluid, made by a 15-year-old buyer, using state employee's credit card, the lawsuit states.

Through each purchase, BuyVapor made no meaningful attempt to verify the age of the purchaser, according to the lawsuit.

The third suit names Arizona-based Gladiator Distribution Inc., doing business as The Vape Co., and Angelo Sgouros of Gilbert, Ariz., as defendants. Sgouros is listed as the director and president of the company and rents the post office box the company uses to conduct business, according to the suit.

In this case, authorities had a 15-year-old Perryville high school student buy an e-cigarette, a Tornado Pure Concentrate Globe Vape Pen, from the company, which was sent to his home. Vape describes the device as "built to last" and designed to produce "unbelievably clean flavor and pronounced aromas that no other vaporize can provide," the lawsuit states. It was also on sale, marked down to $19.95 from $39.95.

Metro on 10/12/2019


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