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EXCLUSIVE Part 1: Investigation finds fruit-flavored e-cigarette pods still for sale

Part one of a three-part series shows steps to protect kids from vaping are failing.

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The trays were full when Rob Kerr placed each of them on a student’s desk in an empty classroom to show his visitors.

“These have all been confiscated,” he said.

More than 100 e-cigarette devices in all filled the trays, some of them loaded with nicotine, others with THC, the mind-altering compound found in cannabis.

And all of them, Vice Principal Kerr said, were taken from some of the 1,900 students at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif., this past school year — the latest draw for teens sucked in by the allure of a quick fix from a vaping device.

Trays of vaping devices confiscated from students at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif.
Hearst
Trays of vaping devices confiscated from students at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif.

“They're marketed towards youth,” Kerr said in an interview. “I mean, you can just look at the packages: There's a Smurf.”

“It's illegal to have them on campus,” he explained. “You can't concentrate when you're using THC all day.” Students are “feeling the effects of being nicotine dependent, THC dependent. They're scared,” he said.

Michael Porter, a junior at the school when he was interviewed for this story, tried vaping. And he says he had a visceral reaction: "I felt horrible. Like morning after, my lungs kind of hurt a little bit. So, after that, I just said no more.”

Michael Porter, at the time a junior at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif., speaks to Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert.
Hearst
Michael Porter, at the time a junior at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif., speaks to Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert.

Porter has asthma, but that didn’t stop him from trying vaping – or, he says, lying the next morning. "My mom asked me, like, 'why do you smell like cucumber?' I just told her there's an air freshener in my friend's house,” Porter recalled.

“She always said: ‘Never smoke, never vape.’”

Vaping use grows among teens

Porter is among the estimated one out of every four high school students – 27.5% – who have tried vaping, according to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As youth usage has soared, so has the number of "E-Cigarette or Vaping Product Use Associated Lung Injury" (EVALI) cases among all Americans, with at least 68 deaths and more than 2,800 cases in all 50 states attributed to the still-evolving condition, according to the CDC.

The current coronavirus pandemic is now illuminating even more vaping-related health risks.

New research from the Stanford University School of Medicine shows teens who use e-cigarettes are up to seven times more likely to get COVID-19 than non-vapers.

An estimated one out of every four high school students – 27.5% – have tried vaping, according to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hearst
An estimated one out of every four high school students – 27.5% – have tried vaping, according to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a nine-month investigation, the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit found that steps to protect kids from vaping are failing, with federal enforcement being ignored in some places and health agencies not fully enforcing the law.

The findings come on the eve of a key deadline Wednesday, when vaping manufactures must justify to the FDA why their products should stay on the market – or else risk having them removed. The agency’s premarket review process, and a court order, allows e-cigarette products to remain for sale during the one-year authorization review process, as long as the manufacture complies with the Sept. 9 filing deadline.

Highest use ‘we’ve ever seen’

Dr. Brian King, deputy director for research translation at the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, said during a tour of his offices in Atlanta earlier this year that the “increases we've seen for e-cigarettes are of the highest single year over year increases that we've ever seen for any substance ever.”

King, who helped edit a 2016 report on e-cigarette use among youth, says vaping companies have created a sweet lure to reel in young customers — fruity flavors.

Dr. Brian King, deputy director for research translation at the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, interviewed in Atlanta by Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert.
Hearst
Dr. Brian King, deputy director for research translation at the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, interviewed in Atlanta by Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert.

"The advertising will lead a horse to water, the flavors will get him to drink, and the nicotine keeps them coming back for more. That's the trifecta of factors that have influenced youth use in this country,” King said. “Flavors [are] among the primary reason that youth report using these products and that most youth e-cigarette users first start with a flavored variety.”

Just two days into 2020, the FDA effectively banned the "manufacture, distribution, and sale" of unauthorized fruit and mint flavored single-use e-cigarette pods to try and stem the epidemic; enforcement began Feb. 1. To date, the FDA confirmed last week, no fruit-flavored product has received “marketing authorization” and no product has been granted “grandfathered status” that would allow its continued sale.

Undercover buys show flavors still for sale

But the National Investigative Unit was able to buy single-use flavored vaping products at retail outlets from Georgia to California after the FDA’s enforcement period took effect.

The Hearst Television National Investigative Unit was able to purchase fruit-flavored, single-use vaping cartridges at retail stores across the country after FDA enforcement against the sale of unauthorized products began Feb. 1.
Hearst
The Hearst Television National Investigative Unit was able to purchase fruit-flavored, single-use vaping cartridges at retail stores across the country after FDA enforcement against the sale of unauthorized products began Feb. 1.

At one store in Las Vegas, an NIU producer asked a clerk, “Oh, this is pineapple?” and the clerk confirmed, “yes,” – a flavor for sale along with strawberry, pineapple, mango and grape. The producer purchased the items. Another shop nearby had mint and cucumber JUUL products and additional flavors from other companies.

The reporting team even found the fruit-flavored, single-use vape pods in JUUL’s backyard, at a shop less than four miles from the vaping giant’s then-San Francisco headquarters. The clerk there said the cost of a single cartridge would be more than double the retail price – at $50.01 total, with tax. When asked how hard it is to get flavored pods now, the clerk responded, “someone come here and he drop it to us.”

Reporters were not able to determine who that someone might be.

A spokesman for JUUL said the company has not sold fruit, creme, mango or cucumber since 2018, and that the ones purchased for this story could be from leftover supply, diverted from another country, or counterfeit.

Through the spokesman, JUUL’s CEO, K.C. Crosthwaite, declined an interview request. Crosthwaite testified before Congress earlier this year and addressed the growing use of his company’s product by teens under the age of 18.

JUUL Labs CEO K.C. Crosthwaite testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington on Feb. 5, 2020
Hearst
JUUL Labs CEO K.C. Crosthwaite testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington on Feb. 5, 2020

“Over the past few years, trust in our company, and category, has eroded. We know some of our past actions have contributed to that erosion and we are committed to taking concrete action to re-earn that trust,” Crosthwaite told lawmakers during the Feb. 5 hearing.

“Underage use rates remain unacceptably high,” he said.

Attorney general cites NIU investigation

California’s attorney general blames JUUL, in part, for those “unacceptably high” e-cigarette usage rates among teens.

Standing next to two large poster boards filled with colorful JUUL advertisements showing youthful-looking people, Xavier Becerra called the ads “clever, clever marketing” that he’s using as evidence in a lawsuit his office filed against the company, alleging it marketed to, and targeted, teens under 18.

“We're using every bit of information we can to prove that these companies knew what they were doing,” Becerra said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tells Chief National Investigative Mark Albert he’s “planning to use” the results of the National Investigative Unit’s reporting on vaping in his office’s case.
Hearst
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tells Chief National Investigative Mark Albert he’s “planning to use” the results of the National Investigative Unit’s reporting on vaping in his office’s case.

When shown the results of the NIU’s nationwide investigation, including the boxes of JUUL flavored vaping products the producers had purchased, the top law enforcement officer of America’s largest state made a surprise announcement.

“I'm planning to use this video in our trial, if I can, because what we're showing is that there are companies that are not being responsible in the way that they are marketing their products,” the attorney general said in an interview in his office near the state Capitol.

Referring to Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert, Becerra said, “You're a reporter. You get to go out there and do this type of investigative reporting which many of us not only applaud, but may use, as I said, in court.”

Needs 'are absolutely immediate'

Ten miles away, back at Rio Americano High School, where vape warning signs now feature prominently on Vice Principal Rob Kerr's walls, parent Anne Del Core helped launch an anti-vaping alliance, hoping to stop other kids from being "sucked in."

Parent Anne Del Core speaks with Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif.
Hearst
Parent Anne Del Core speaks with Chief National Investigative Correspondent Mark Albert at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif.

"It's dangerous and it's scary,” Del Core said while walking through the quiet campus quad area.

Last month, California's governor signed a bill banning the sale of fruit, menthol and mint-flavored vaping cartridges and cigarettes starting Jan. 1.

For Del Core, it’s overdue.

"The needs are absolutely immediate. Right now."

PART 2: Coming Wednesday, the National Investigative Unit buys vaping products and sends them to a lab to find out what's really inside the devices your children may be tempted to use. The results stunned even the lab.

Mark Albert is the chief national investigative correspondent for the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit, based in Washington D.C. April Chunko, Travis Sherwin, and Hyojung Kim contributed to this report.

Know of e-cigarette injuries? Have a confidential tip or inside information about the vaping industry? Send information and documents to the National Investigative Unit at investigate@hearst.com.