King County filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against the nation’s largest e-cigarette company, accusing it of targeting children and teenagers in its advertising and marketing.
The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, asserts that Juul Labs Inc. enticed young people by promoting flavored vaping products and getting endorsements from social-media influencers.
It asks the court to stop Juul from marketing its products, as well as to force the company to pay damages and the cost of addiction treatment for its users. King County taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for health problems created by e-cig companies, King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a news release about the lawsuit.
Nationwide, between 2017 and 2018, e-cigarette use increased 48% among middle-school students and 78% among high-school students, according to a 2018 U.S. surgeon general advisory on e-cigarette use. In King County and nationally, about one in four high-school seniors report having vaped in the past 30 days. Youth cigarette-smoking rates have declined over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; this lawsuit blames Juul for a sudden resurgence in youth nicotine use.
In a statement emailed to The Seattle Times, Juul said its products were never designed for youth and are targeted to adults looking for alternatives to smoking cigarettes.
Juul announced Thursday it has stopped selling fruit- and dessert-flavored products but will continue to sell mint and menthol, its most popular flavors. Meanwhile, Washington is among several states that have enacted bans on certain vape products, and the Trump administration has proposed banning nearly all flavored vape products nationwide. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing guidelines on the matter and has given companies until next May to submit their products for review; only products that represent a net benefit to public health are to stay on the market.
“We need to urgently address underage use of vapor products and earn the trust of regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders,” the statement read. “That is why we are focusing on taking aggressive actions to reduce youth usage of our products, working through the FDA’s PMTA [premarket tobacco application] process and supporting and complying with FDA’s final guidance on flavored products once effective.”
Washington state’s ban on flavored vape products, enacted Oct. 9, lasts 120 days but can be extended by the state board of health after that time. State lawmakers are likely to take up the issue when their session begins in January. Last year, the Legislature passed a law raising the age to purchase tobacco and vaping products to 21; that law goes into effect in January.
The lawsuit also names a number of companies under the umbrella of Altria, the parent of tobacco company Philip Morris. In buying a 35% stake in Juul, Altria went “from a competitor to a co-conspirator,” the suit alleges. This collective “Juul enterprise” falsely said its products were aimed at people trying to quit smoking while it was actually marketing them to children, and those false statements constitute mail and wire fraud under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the lawsuit claims. RICO was the law cited in past cases against tobacco companies over their marketing to youths.
“As we allege in the complaint, it is clear that Juul, like Big Tobacco before it, targeted youth to hook a whole new generation on candy-flavored nicotine,” Constantine said in the news release. “Juul was well aware that their products would appeal to youth — driving an ever-increasing epidemic of nicotine addiction and severe lung illness.”
Vaping has come under scrutiny after a spate of severe lung illnesses around the country that have been connected to vaping THC and nicotine products. About 1,500 cases of the lung illness have been confirmed across 49 states, including 12 in Washington. Thirty-three people have died, but none in Washington.
King County isn’t the first local entity to sue Juul. The La Conner School District in Skagit County filed a suit last week in federal court in Seattle over Juul’s advertising and marketing. Suits filed this month by suburban school districts near Kansas City, St. Louis and New York City have also accused Juul of targeting and endangering teens, creating a public nuisance by fueling health problems tied to vaping, and forcing educators to divert time and money to fight an epidemic of nicotine addiction.
Juul also faces legal challenges from private citizens. A Missouri woman sued the company in August, saying its ads portraying vaping as cool led her 14-year-old daughter to get hooked on nicotine. That suit seeks class-action status.
Information from Bloomberg News, The New York Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.