Two new lawsuits out of Illinois are targeting the San Francisco e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs Inc. for allegedly using deceptive marketing campaigns to target teens. News of the complaints broke just under a year after reports that the company had offered districts in California stipends of as much as $20,000 to adopt a vaping curriculum to be taught by Juul consultants.
In a study published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers claimed the curriculum failed to emphasize the harms caused by flavored pods and omitted information about how the e-cigarette industry markets to teens.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking into a cluster of nearly 100 possible cases of severe lung illness associated with vaping in 14 states between June 28 and Aug. 15. The Food and Drug Administration has also been investigating the safety of e-cigarettes and Juul’s marketing practices, and the U.S. Surgeon General has called teenage vaping an “epidemic.”
The latest lawsuits
In Illinois this month, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim announced his office is seeking punitive damages for use on programs to help children and teens fight nicotine addictions. Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit was filed on behalf of 19-year-old Christian Foss, who says he became addicted to nicotine and suffered worsening asthma symptoms after he began using Juul’s device at 16.
The latter alleges that Juul and Philip Morris USA Inc. — which recently bought a 35 percent stake in Juul for $12.8 billion and is also included in the suit — violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by adopting the tobacco industry’s past use of catchy ad campaigns to market to minors. The Justice Department invoked RICO two decades ago to sue the tobacco industry.
Also this month, a woman filed a federal suit in Charleston, West Virginia, on behalf of her child that lays out a history of e-cigarettes and their alleged marketing to teens.
Schools struggling with rise of vaping
According to a 2017 CDC survey, more than 42 percent of students have already tried vaping. E-cigarettes typically consist of cartridges of liquid nicotine heated by a battery to create a cloud of vapor that looks like smoke and that the user inhales. The cartridges come in hundreds of flavors including mango, mint and rainbow sherbet.
In addition to the flavors, Juul’s vaporizer is particularly popular among teens because it’s designed to look like a common USB drive. Students in San Francisco have reported that the design makes it easy to use at school in the restrooms or locker rooms and even during class.
One student attending a Folsom, Calif. high school told reporters that as soon as a teacher turns away, kids can take a hit just as they would a normal cigarette, and blow the quick-dissipating smoke into their backpack or sweater. And since the smell given off is relatively mild and often fruity, it can be easily mistaken for scented lotion or hand sanitizer.
State lawmakers have proposed several possible solutions that could reduce vaping among teens. One bill, AB 1639, would among other things increase mandatory sting operations on stores that sell e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. The bill would have also restricted the sale of flavored e-cigarettes like the fruit-, dessert- and candy-flavored vapes popular among youth, but that provision was rolled back amidst opposition.
Experts concerned about increase in use
CDC officials note that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development, and that they are often far more potent than normal cigarettes. According to the manufacturer, a single JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as 20 regular cigarettes.
Studies show that using nicotine in adolescence can harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood and impulse control.
E-cigarettes can contain other harmful substances besides nicotine, however, including ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs; flavoring such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease; and even heavy metals such as nickel, tin and lead.
Those findings are alarming, especially as more kids turn to vaping in lieu of standard burning cigarettes believing them to be a less harmful alternative.
While it’s true that vaping exposes users to fewer harmful chemicals than burned cigarettes, CDC officials said that is because the bar is so low: burned cigarettes are extraordinarily dangerous, killing half of all people who smoke long-term.