Juul Labs Inc. was sued by California for allegedly targeting teenagers with ads for its e-cigarettes, after a series of lawsuits filed by schools, parents, and others against the market leader as deaths and illnesses linked to vaping add up across the U.S.
“Juul adopted the tobacco industry’s infamous playbook, employing advertisements that had no regard for public health and searching out vulnerable targets,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who announced the lawsuit at a news conference Monday in Los Angeles. “Today we take legal action against the deceptive practices that Juul and the e-cigarette industry employ to lure our kids into their vaping web.”
The San Francisco-based e-cigarette company has become a target of government regulators attempting to stem an epidemic of new nicotine users who have flocked to the sleek device even though many have never smoked cigarettes.
Becerra alleges that Juul targeted young people in its advertising, failed to include required warnings, knowingly delivered tobacco products to consumers without verifying their age, kept the personal e-mails of minors who tried and failed to make a purchase, and proceeded to market Juul to them.
The suit seeks to make Juul pay for the cost of addiction treatment and for prevention. Becerra also wants the court to order Juul to abate a public nuisance and to stop making false and misleading statements and engaging in unfair competition, according to the complaint and is asking for as much as $2,500 per violation of California false advertising and unfair competition laws.
The public-nuisance claims are similar to those against opioid makers and distributors.
Juul hasn’t yet reviewed the lawsuit but is committed to “resetting the vapor category” and “earning the trust of society” by working with authorities to “combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” Juul spokesman Austin Finan said in a statement. In the U.S., Juul has stopped accepting orders for Mint JUULpods and suspended all product advertising, Finan said.
“Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users,” according to the statement.
School districts across the U.S., among others, have filed federal suits claiming an economic burden from teen vaping, and there are more than 40 suits in state courts as well. Some of the plaintiffs are parents who claim their children got addicted to nicotine by using e-cigarettes.
In addition, the company is facing investigations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, a congressional inquiry and, reportedly, a criminal probe by the Department of Justice.
Juul dominates the U.S. market for e-cigarettes. Its vaporizer has been particularly popular with younger users. Altria Group Inc., which makes and markets Marlboro cigarettes in the U.S., invested about $13 billion in the closely held company last year in exchange for a 35% stake. Altria isn’t named as a defendant in California’s suit.
As of Nov. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 42 deaths of patients tied to e-cigarette or vaping product use, with a further 2,172 cases of associated lung injury reported nationwide. Four of the deaths were patients in California, according to a statement from the attorney general.