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Chicago files yet another lawsuit against e-cigarette industry

Four months ago, the Chicago City Council banned the sale of flavored vaping products favored by teens, but exempting flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.

On Monday, that watered-down law triggered its first lawsuit — one that accuses Equte LLC, a marketing firm, as well as, of “marketing and selling flavored vaping products” to Chicago kids.

The latest in a string of city lawsuits against the e-cigarette industry follows an investigation by the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. It identified the two companies as having violated the flavored tobacco ban championed by Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th).

Neither company could be reached for comment.

“E-cigarettes are unhealthy and addictive, and businesses deliberately target young people in the hope they’ll develop lifelong customers,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot was quoted as saying in a news release.

“The City of Chicago’s message to vaping companies is clear: If you break the law, we will go after you, especially if you try to sell to our youth.”

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno was quoted as saying she takes “great pride” in keeping Chicago minors “safe from vaping and holding bad actors accountable.”

“We will continue to closely monitor activity and pursue all incidents so that every e-cigarette company understands that flavored vape sales are not welcome in the city of Chicago.”

O’Shea originally championed a much stronger, citywide ban on all flavored tobacco products. He was forced to settle for less — a ban on “flavored liquid nicotine products — after running into a buzz-saw of opposition from gas stations, convenience and tobacco stores. They accused O’Shea of kicking them when they’re down, with their businesses hurting during the pandemic.

O’Shea could not be reached for comment. The press release quoted him as saying that this lawsuit “not only takes these companies to task, but sends a clear message to anyone who thinks they can push vaping products onto our kids and get away with it.”

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady cited studies that show 80% of youth tobacco users started with a flavored product such as e-cigarettes or menthol cigarettes. Roughly the same percentage of minors and young adults “say they would quit if flavored tobacco products were unavailable,” the commissioner said.

“Yet flavors are often marketed to give youth the impression that flavored products are safer than other tobacco products,” Arwady was quoted as saying.

“This deceit not only harms the individual, but also has ripple effects across the public health system. It is imperative that we use every strategy and resource available to prevent the sale of flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.”

Chicago has been a trailblazer for decades in the fight to protect adults in general and young people in particular from the public health dangers of smoking and tobacco-related products.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel pursued a sweeping anti-smoking agenda that drove the teen smoking rate down to 10.7%.

It included: raising the smoking age to 21; imposing the nation’s highest cigarette tax; banning e-cigarettes wherever smoking is prohibited; moving them behind the counter of retail stores; snuffing out sales to minors; banning the sale of flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools; and taxing-cigarettes and banning coupons and discounts that Big Tobacco uses to drive down the price of a pack of cigarettes from $13 to as low as $1 to lure teens to take up the habit.

Emanuel also filed rapid-fire lawsuits against the e-cigarette industry similar to the one that Lightfoot filed Monday.

The last of those lawsuits was filed three months before Emanuel left office. It accused 27 companies that sell e-cigarette vapor liquid and accessories of “actively marketing their products to minors,” using websites and social media campaigns that are “immoral and unethical” and cause “substantial injury to underage consumers of e-cigarettes.”

The groundwork for that complaint was also laid by the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Using a pre-paid Visa gift card, an 18-year-old man — identified only as “John Doe” — ordered “nicotine-containing e-liquids” from each of the defendants’ websites and had them delivered to the bureau’s office at Ogden and Western.

“At no time before or during the purchase or delivery of the tobacco products or accessories did Defendants request a valid form of government identification or any other verification of Doe’s age,” the earlier lawsuit said.

“And at no time before or after the delivery of the tobacco products and accessories did Defendants call or email Doe to get more identifying information or confirm that Doe was 21 years old or older.”


Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun Times