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Expert on nicotine addiction testifies in San Francisco School District war on Juul

An expert testified Altria knew Juul had designed and marketed its vape pens to appeal to kids, but Altria's lawyer hammered home his client had nothing to do with the campaign.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — During day two of the trial for San Francisco Unified School District’s lawsuit against vape manufacturer Juul, jurors heard two very different takes on the role of Altria — formerly Philip Morris — in efforts by Juul to sell its e-cigarettes to young people.

Altria, the $84 billion tobacco giant based in Virginia which invested $12.5 billion in Juul, knew all along about Juul’s drive to capture more and more of the youth market, expert witness Neil Grunberg testified Tuesday.

Both sides offered opening arguments Monday before Grunberg took the stand and introduced himself and his bona fides to the jury. On Tuesday, Grunberg spent much of the day being questioned by the school district's attorney Sarah London.

Grunberg, the director of leadership, research and development at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland, who has spent four decades studying the effects of nicotine, detailed how Juul utilized advertising and flavors to make tobacco more appealing to the youthful consumers who flocked to purchase electronic cigarettes in 2018 and 2019. By itself, Grunberg explained, tobacco isn’t particularly appealing to kids. But with the addition of a variety of flavors such as mango, crème brûlée, and mint, the product became more enticing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned Juul from selling flavored pods for their vape pens in 2020.

Referencing Ivan Pavlov, the Russian scientist who famously used dogs in his experiments studying classical conditioning, Grunberg told jurors the use of flavored tobacco products conditioned smokers — particularly young, impressionable smokers — to associate tobacco products with sweet rewards. Flavored tobacco products also helped to reduce the sense of danger that might otherwise dissuade young people from lighting up.

Grunberg lifted a line from then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams who in 2020 said, “You are more likely than adults to initiate tobacco products use with flavored tobacco products, and appealing flavor is cited by youth as one of the main reasons for using e-cigarettes.”

Advertising, too, lured young people into smoking, Grunberg said. Advertising has powerful sway over youth with images of attractive kids, fashionably dressed, having fun with their peers and smoking. In fact, one video entered into evidence showed exactly that — young people dancing, frequently with Juuls in hand, as bright colors strobed around them.

Altria knew Juul vape pens were designed and marketed in ways that would attract and hook young people and grow the nicotine market again, Grunberg said. He said he found it particularly alarming that despite Altria’s insistence otherwise, Juul’s focus wasn’t on trying to convert cigarette smokers to use its products to help cut back on smoking.

“But what’s really important and concerning me is when Juul rocketed up in 2017 to 19 or so, it went up but the amount it went up in sales was not compensated by a similar decrease in cigarette sales.”

That was because Juul was attempting to create a new generation of smokers, Grunberg testified. The company’s new customers weren’t people switching from cigarettes to vape pens — they were kids as young as 14 trying out nicotine products for the first time.l

Near the end of Tuesday, Altria attorney Brian Stekloff’s cross-examination indicated the tack the company's defense would take: convincing jurors that Juul’s efforts to create youthful smokers had had nothing to do with Altria.

“You saw no evidence that Altria was involved in the design of Juul prior to its release in 2015,” Stekloff asked Grunberg.

“I agree with that,” Grunberg replied.

Stekloff drove home the idea that Juul’s marketing, as well as the products themselves, had all been done without input from Altria. With each question, Grunberg conceded that, yes, Altria had had no role in those actions. But he also testified the company had known all along what Juul was doing.

Testimony continues Wednesday.

Categories / Business, Health, Trials

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