LOS ANGELES (CN) – California and the city of Los Angeles sued e-cigarette maker Juul Labs on Monday, claiming the company caused a public health crisis by targeting teens with fruity, fun flavored vaping products and did not verify the age of its customers for online sales.
Electronic cigarettes – also called vapes – are manufactured and sold by numerous companies throughout the United States, but the San Francisco Bay Area-based Juul makes up the largest slice of the industry. The company also targets young consumers, according to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Juul marketed fun flavored vaping products to youth through colorful advertising in print and over social media, according to the 78-page complaint filed in Alameda County on Monday.
Becerra said Juul profited from unlawful and deceptive business practices, including selling tobacco products to underage persons, failing to verify the age of its customers online and making false or misleading statements by presenting Juul’s products as having a lower risk of causing tobacco-related disease.
“Juul adopted the tobacco industry’s infamous playbook, employing advertisements that had no regard for public health and searching out vulnerable targets,” said Becerra.
One marketing campaign referenced in the lawsuit quoted Juul as saying, “The Smoking Evolved/Vaporized campaign features 10 New York trendsetters who embody the Juul brand and speak to millennial consumers seeking a stylish and simple new way to enjoy nicotine with the latest vapor technology.”
Even the color scheme used by Juul’s original marketing and products was strikingly similar to Marlboro cigarettes – such that Marlboro’s parent company Philip Morris USA sent a cease-and-desist letter in June 2015 after Juul’s initial launch.
Juul hosted multiple sampling events in Los Angeles from June to November 2015 which are cited in the complaint. Those included movie and wine festivals, but also music festivals and events at convenience stores. The complaint says as many as 15,000 people tried Juul products at a single event.
The following year Juul acknowledged in internal documents that its “#Vaporized” campaign appeared to be “too youthful for many consumers (and the media).”
Additionally, California claims the company hired “brand ambassadors” to provide samples to consumers but told them to remove the Juul pods from their packaging, which had health warnings required by state law.
Vaping use by high school students rose from 11.7% in 2017 to 27.5% in 2019, according to Becerra's office. The joint lawsuit says Juul owes $2,500 for each violation of state law.
In a statement a spokesperson for Juul said the company has not reviewed the complaint but remains “focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S.” and working with regulators and public health officials.
The company recently stopped selling mint Juul pods and stopped all advertising in the U.S. Juul said it will also invest to expand their commitment to reduce youth use.
“Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users,” the company said in its statement.
California law enforcement conducted a 21-month investigation as part of the state’s lawsuit, which is not the first to strike at the company for putting teens in its marketing crosshairs.
Lawsuits have been filed across the country over respiratory problems linked to vaping.
In the United States, there have been 42 deaths and over 2,100 reported respiratory illness cases in 2019 alone according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This year, Los Angeles launched its own anti-vaping campaign because local officials claim the federal government has not done enough to address the health risks. And this month, President Donald Trump backed away from signing a ban on e-cigarettes after vowing to curb their use weeks earlier.