Montgomery County filed a potential class-action suit Friday alleging an e-cigarette manufacturer created an epidemic of underage nicotine addiction by portraying its product and vaping as “a teen pop culture icon and status symbol.”
The lawsuit against Juul Labs Inc. claims the company created a public nuisance by designing its e-cigarettes and packaging to appeal to kids and be easily concealable, making nicotine cartridges in fruity flavors, marketing to children through colorful and vibrant images and saturating social media channels frequented by children, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. The company is also accused of making false and misleading statements about the safety of Juul e-cigarettes and downplaying the risk of addiction.
“The current epidemic of underage nicotine addiction that Juul created is no accident,” the complaint states. “Juul founders and executives closely studied the Big Tobacco playbook and successfully implemented the techniques that Big Tobacco used to hook a prior generation to nicotine in order to mislead a new generation into believing that e-cigarettes, unlike traditional cigarettes, are safe and not addictive.”
The lawsuit claims violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, Montgomery County Consumer Protection Act and federal racketeering law. As a result of Juul’s alleged actions, the county has had to expend resources attempting to curb underage nicotine use.
A spokesman for Juul said Monday that the county’s lawsuit is “without merit.”
“We have never marketed to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products as they exist to help adult smokers find an alternative to combustible cigarettes,” Austin Finan said in an emailed statement. “We need to urgently address underage use of vapor products and earn the trust of regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders.”
Juul has taken steps to curb youth vaping, according to its website, saying the company has “no higher priority.” Online sales were banned for anyone under 21 in 2017 and last year the company began working with social media platforms to delete inappropriate posts and listings. Juul also announced it was investing $30 million over three years into research, education and community engagement.
In August, Juul launched the Retail Access Control Standards program (RACS) to enforce age restrictions at the point of sale. Last week, the company announced a pilot study showed the rate of failure in audits dropped.
But the county’s lawsuit argues Juul’s products “are plainly marketed to children” and deliver “a dose of nicotine that is far stronger and far more potent than traditional cigarettes.” The packaging is “clean and minimalist” as well as “small and easily concealable” which makes it appealing to children, the complaint argues.
Citing a 2016 Surgeon General report where more than 80% of underage e-cigarette users said they use them “because they come in flavors I like,” the complaint alleges one of the defendants, the parent company of Phillip Morris USA, “is well aware of the dangers posed by kid-friendly flavors.”
Youth smoking has decreased dramatically to less than 10% in the last decade, according to the county, but Juul’s alleged conduct caused a 900 percent increase in e-cigarette use by high schoolers from 2011 to 2015.
As a result of the increase in underage vaping, the lawsuit claims, Montgomery County has had to spend money to target vaping and implement education in its schools to curb the use of e-cigarettes. Police have also needed more funding to enforce underage sales laws.
The county is seeking certification of a nationwide class and a Maryland subclass of plaintiffs, an order requiring Juul to address the claimed public nuisance, damages and other relief.
The case is Montgomery County, Maryland v. Juul Labs Inc. et al., 8:19-cv-02981.