The vape manufacturer Juul Labs has long faced accusations of using fruity flavors and eye-catching packaging to market its products to teenagers, even though the company has repeatedly denied these claims. Now, a 15-year-old girl from Sarasota, Florida, and her family are filing a class action lawsuit against Juul Labs and the tobacco company Altria Group (which owns Philip Morris), alleging that they purposefully tried to get teenagers hooked on the products using deceptive marketing tactics.
According to the lawsuit — which lists the family as plaintiffs, as well as “those similarly situated” — the family is accusing the manufacturers of racketeering, and is seeking damages on behalf of themselves and potentially other anonymous plaintiffs. The suit claims that Juul “knew that Juul e-cigarettes were not safe for nonsmokers, and posed a risk of aggravating addiction in those already addicted to cigarettes.” Altria is also being sued because it has a 35% stake in Juul.
In the suit, the girl, identified only as A.N., claims that she started using Juul when she was 14, and enjoyed using the device because of its fruity mango flavor. At the time, the suit says, she was unaware at the time that the device contained nicotine; a year later, she is addicted to the device and suffers seizures, a rare potential side effect of nicotine addiction. “Health authorities consider youth e-cigarette use an epidemic. Defendants are to blame,” the complaint says. “Mimicking Big Tobacco’s past marketing practices, Defendants prey on youth to recruit replacement smokers for financial gain.”
The lawsuit is part of a wider effort to crack down on e-cigarette use among teenagers. According to a recent National Institutes of Health study, the number of teenagers smoking e-cigarettes has risen exponentially, with nearly 21% of teenagers in 2018 reporting they had vaped within the past 30 days, as opposed to 11% the prior year. The Centers for Disease Control has also reported that 4.9 million middle- and high-school students have reported using a tobacco product within the past 30 days, up from 1.3 million users in 2017. And although vaping is generally considered safer than smoking traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes still contain high doses of nicotine, and emerging research has pointed to a range of potential health risks, including increased risk of stroke and heart attacks.
The Silicon Valley-based startup Juul is by far the most popular option, with the company taking up nearly 75% of the entire e-cigarette market. With its discreet packaging (it looks like a USB drive, thus making it easy to conceal from parents or teachers) and wide range of fruity flavors, not to mention’s the company’s social media-based marketing campaigns (which Stanford researchers referred to as “patently youth-oriented”), the Juul has specifically been accused by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of trying to appeal to teenagers. In an effort to curb what FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has referred to as a teen vaping “epidemic,” the FDA has issued more than 60 warning letters to Juul distributors that have sold to underage consumers.
Although Juul has denied these claims, it has also taken small public steps to address the FDA’s criticisms, including yanking most flavored vapes from stores. “Our intent was never to have youth use Juul,” Kevin Burns, the chief executive of Juul Labs, said in a statement last year. “But intent is not enough. The numbers are what matter and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarettes is a problem.”
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for Juul again denied claims that it was intentionally trying to target young users: “JUUL Labs is committed to eliminating combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in the world,” the spokesperson said. “Our product is intended to be a viable alternative for current adult smokers only. We do not want non-nicotine users, especially youth, to ever try our product. To this end, we have launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission. To the extent these cases allege otherwise, they are without merit and we will defend our mission throughout this process.”