Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has sent letters to 10 e-cigarette manufacturers questioning what the companies are doing to prevent sales to underage buyers.
The letters come as the safety and regulation of the devices face increased scrutiny. The makers of e-cigarettes say the devices are safer than traditional cigarettes and can help smokers quit, but reports of poisonings related to the products have spiked. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently said it is seeking regulatory authority over the devices.
The battery-operated devices mimic smoking a traditional cigarette but emit flavored vapor rather than smoke.
Gansler, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, said the way they are marketed appeals to teenagers. Some of the nicotine-laced liquids have flavors with names such as gummi bear, bubble gum and cotton candy.
"They are targeting children and young people," Gansler said. "It is creating a whole new population who would never smoke. … It is getting them addicted to the nicotine and making them more likely to begin smoking regular cigarettes."
Several e-cigarette companies said they support curbing sales to youths, but questioned the tactic Gansler is using, particularly during an election season. State officials should not jump into the regulation of e-cigarettes and should instead leave it to the FDA to set uniform guidelines, executives from some of the companies said.
"Setting a national standard for how these are regulated is the much more effective way to go," said David Sylvia, a spokesman for Nu Mark, a division of the tobacco company Altria Group Inc. "The agency has the science to put in place the appropriate set of regulations for this new category."
Gansler pointed out that state attorneys general played large roles in tobacco settlements in the 1990s.
New regulations proposed by the FDA would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to people under 18, a measure that already passed in Maryland. E-cigarettes would have to come with warning labels saying they contain the addictive substance nicotine. Companies would need FDA approval and scientific evidence to say e-cigarettes are less harmful than real cigarettes.
The new regulations, however, don't address flavoring or marketing of the products.
In his letter, Gansler asked the companies to tell the state what they are doing to prevent the sale of products to youth.
He also asked the companies to place clear warnings on packaging regarding the dangers of touching or ingesting nicotine and to stop marketing that is attractive to children.
Additionally, Gansler wants the companies to use childproof product designs that make it difficult for children to be inadvertently exposed to liquid nicotine.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found a spike in calls to poison control centers nationwide related to the use of e-cigarettes. More than 50 percent of those calls involved children under the age of 5. Poisoning related to e-cigarettes involves children ingesting, inhaling or absorbing through the skin or eyes the liquid containing nicotine used in the devices.
Many of the companies Gansler wrote said they already have childproof packaging and others said they don't sell fruity flavors attractive to young people. They also point out that the poisonings have occurred mostly from containers with e-liquid or e-juice used to refill some designs of e-cigarettes.
"The liquid is not loose," said Miguel Martin, president of Florida-based e-cigarette manufacturer, Logic Technology Development. "You would have to go through a significant effort to get access to that liquid."
E-cigarette company Nu Mark said it does not sell e-liquid or e-juice used in refillable e-vapor products. Its MarkTen e-cigarette is sold with pre-filled cartridges that are disposed of once the liquid has been used. The cartridges are not designed to be refilled.
New Jersey-based Eonsmoke said its products contain "clear and conspicuous warnings" describing the dangers of ingesting or mishandling nicotine. The company sells catridges but also carries refillable bottles of e-liquid which have child proof bottle caps.
A trade group that represent the manufacturers said that although e-cigarettes should not be marketed to kids, parents need to take some responsibility when their kids are exposed to the e-liquid.
"It is no different than if I buy strawberry vodka," said Ray Story, founder and CEO of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association.