STOCKTON — San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar on Thursday announced her office will begin investigating the largest manufacturer of e-cigarettes and vaping products, accusing the company of purposely misrepresenting itself and its intention.

Verber Salazar said Juul Labs controls 76.1 percent of the e-cigarette market and was valued at $35 billion last year.

She said the San Francisco-based company, founded in 2015, had initially marketed itself as a rehabilitative product that would help individuals transition off of traditional cigarettes and into a safer and healthier alternative.

“They marketed themselves as a disrupter,” she said. “Somebody who was going to take cigarettes out of the hands of the people in America and a allow a healthier pathway moving forward. But while they put forth that image to market their product, what they actually did was double down and focused on our youth.”

According to Verber Salazar, Juul’s marketing campaign in its first three years of existence was driven to entice young people to become the next generation to be addicted to nicotine.

One $25 Juul pod, according to Verber Salazar, contains the amount of nicotine equal to 20 traditional cigarettes.

She cited statistics from a recent study conducted by Stanford University, which reported that five out of eight high school students in the country didn’t realize Juul contained nicotine, or even significantly more nicotine that traditional cigarettes.

The company sold 1.2 billion pods last year, she said, meaning 21 billion cigarettes were placed in the hands of consumers.

“Here in San Joaquin County, our job is public safety,” Verber Salazar said. “We’re asking every other county in California to fight with us, and we’re asking the state to stand with us and ban this product.”

Chelsea Vongehr, spokeswoman for Lodi Unified School District, said that last year there were 167 incidents involving vaping at both the elementary and secondary school levels.

There were a total of 546 incidents involving vaping, tobacco and substance abuse at the secondary school level, and 53 incidents at the elementary school level, she said.

“Our onsite counselors talk to our students about the dangers of vaping and substance abuse,” Vongehr said. “In addition, all of our high schools receive eight hours of substance abuse counseling provided by the Teen 180 Center. Our high schools can refer any students so they can receive this counseling.”

Vongehr said the district is continually looking at ways to proactively teach students about the dangers of vaping, noting that in July, it applied to the California Department of Justice’s Tobacco Program Grant for more than $1.5 million.

If grant funds are awarded, she said the district will purchase and install vapor detection devices at all 50 school sites.

Horace ‘Elvis’ Lucido, owner of the King’s Closet thrift store and vape shop in Lodi, said he has never sold Juul products and never plans to, because he knew what the company was marketing.

“From the beginning I didn’t want to sell Juul stuff, because I knew they were marketing to kids,” he said. “Juul is high in nicotine, it’s made small so you can hide it, and they make all these flavors that kids like. I try to educate people who come in here about what that product does and why they shouldn’t buy it.”

According to www.truthinitiative .org, a nonprofit public health organization committed to eliminating tobacco use, the most popular e-cigarette products contained as much as 2.4 percent nicotine before Juul was founded in 2015. When Juul debuted, its pods contained 5 percent nicotine strength, the organization said.

The District Attorney’s investigation announcement comes just a day after Juul chief executive officer Kevin Burns stepped down from his post as vaping-related illness increase across the country.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week reported there have been 805 vaping-related injury cases and 12 deaths in 2019, but the causes remain undetermined. Two of those deaths were in California, the CDC said.

Verber Salazar’s announcement also comes two weeks after she announced her office would consider implementing a county-wide ban on all vaping and e-cigarette products sometime in 2020.

Lucido said if the ban were to be put in place, it would put him out of business. He said 60 percent of his revenue comes from the vape shop portion of King’s Closet.

“I’m already feeling the effect with all the news out there,” he said. “I’ve lost maybe 25 percent of my customers. A lot of them are going back to cigarettes.”

Manny Singh, manager of Tobacco City N Vape at 550 S. Cherokee Lane, said Juul products are very popular among customers, who tend to be in their 30s and 40s. However, the store does not sell the flavored Juul products that attract a lot of users.

While Juul products don’t generate a lot of sales for the store, Singh said the District Attorney’s plan to ban e-cigarettes would put a dent in revenue.

However, he said he supported Verber Salazar’s intention to investigate the company.

“I think it is a good idea,” he said. “If a lot of kids are smoking this, (the investigation) is fine. We don’t want anyone selling these products to our kids, and we don’t want anyone younger than 21 using them. That’s wrong.”

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