Lawsuits against e-cigarette maker Juul were filed this week by the states of California and New York, two Washington state counties and a school district for allegedly targeting minors.
The lawsuits claim Juul’s advertising campaigns target young people to use nicotine without knowing the associated risks by enticing them with flavor pods.
Juul spokesman Austin Finan told CNN that while the company has not yet reviewed the complaints, they “remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the US and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.”
Finan’s statement added that the company’s customer base is adult smokers and they “do not intend to attract underage users.” As a result, they’ve stopped selling one of their popular flavors and have suspended advertising in the US, instead focusing on scientific research to “reduce youth use.”
The CDC has identified e-cigarette use or vaping as a source of lung illness and a cause for several deaths.
Juul announced last month that it would stop the sale of flavors other than tobacco, mint and menthol. Juul now says it will stick to selling only Virginia Tobacco, Classic Tobacco and Menthol flavors in the United States.
The company said the decision was reached after research published earlier this week showed mint flavor was attractive to young people who vape. Studies published in the medical journal JAMA found that nearly 60% of high school students who vape use Juul, the market leader, and mint was the most popular flavor among US 10th and 12th graders.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the state of California’s lawsuit in conjunction with the Los Angeles District Attorney and the County of Los Angeles on Monday. The state has worked hard to combat tobacco use, he said, but continues to “lose Californians to vaping and nicotine addiction.”
Nearly 1 in 10 high school students in Los Angeles County reported using e-cigarettes, the press release from California Attorney General Becerra noted.
The California lawsuit alleges that Juul violated several California laws including failing to include required warnings about exposures to chemicals linked to cancer, delivering tobacco products directly to underaged persons, violating the privacy rights of minors by sending them advertising to their email accounts even though they failed age verification, and creating a public health epidemic with an addictive and harmful product.
In New York, a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Letitia James on Tuesday accuses Juul of deceptive and misleading marketing that contributed to a youth vaping epidemic.
“Juul basically took a page from big tobacco’s playbook by marketing its products in a manner that was appealing to under-age youth,” James said at a news conference.
The suit said the company illegally sold its products to minors online and via third-party retail stores. It also accused Juul of failing to warn consumers that its products contain nicotine and misrepresenting them as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, James said in a statement.
“By glamorizing vaping, while at the same time downplaying the nicotine found in vaping products, JUUL is putting countless New Yorkers at risk,” according to James.
The New York suit cited social media marketing campaigns as well as direct outreach to high school students by company representatives.
In Washington State, officials with King County, Skagit County and the La Conner School District – which serves 576 students – each filed separate class action lawsuits against Juul Labs and Altria Group, a major Juul shareholder.
Altria Group spokesman Steve Callahan told CNN his company is declining comment on the Washington State lawsuits. The company was not named in the suit filed by the state of California.
One in every four King County high school seniors reported they had vaped within the past 30 days, the King County lawsuit said, citing a public health study on vapor and e-cigarette use in the county.
During the 2017-2018 school year, 90% of nicotine and tobacco violations at Seattle Public Schools were for vaping, the suit says. More than 60% of those violations were for Juul products, the suit says.
Vaping and e-cigarette use by high school and middle school students increased 900% between 2011 and 2015, the lawsuit alleges.
The King county lawsuit accuses Juul of using “marketing tactics specifically designed to mislead children … to ensnare minors into nicotine addiction, including by explicitly adopting tactics prohibited from Big Tobacco.” Such tactics include giving free samples and paying influencers to push Juul products.
The suits filed by Skagit county and the La Conner school district echo the sentiments of the King county lawsuit, saying the company has contributed to nicotine use among school-aged minors causing a public health crisis.
CNN’s Evan Simko-Bednarski, Ray Sanchez, Stella Chan and Jen Christensen contributed to this report.