Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said this week that his office continues to investigate the sales practices of vaping products by Juul Labs Inc., including whether the company targeted children as a lucrative market.
Because the investigation is ongoing, Weiser said he could not give specifics. But he stressed that in the coming months he will decide whether to join forces with a coalition of attorneys general from 39 states who announced Tuesday that they were investigating the San Francisco-based company for potential litigation.
He said it’s still unclear whether joining forces with other states or suing solely on Colorado’s behalf would be the best approach.
“We’re going to keep evaluating what is best for Colorado,” Weiser said. “The level of concern here is widespread, and the likelihood of impactful action is increasing.”
Nine other attorneys general already have announced lawsuits, with most alleging Juul relied on Big Tobacco’s earlier playbook to attract teen customers. Court documents in those lawsuits show how Colorado might proceed if Weiser sues.
California sued in November. That lawsuit claims the founders of Juul, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, who met at Stanford University as graduate students, combed through internal documents produced by the tobacco industry during attorneys general litigation as they decided how to build Juul products.
They found the cache of tobacco industry documents stored at the University of California San Francisco library, the lawsuit states.
Bowen and Monsees researched patents obtained by the tobacco industry, including one from R.J. Reynolds, that guided them in the use of nicotine salts to deliver more nicotine in their vaping products, according to California’s complaint. The nicotine salts were the secret "softening" chemicals that allowed users to take deeper drags from the vapes, the lawsuit claims.
Bowen and Monsees also researched advertising techniques of the tobacco industry by going through a database of tobacco advertising imagery that Stanford University maintains to guide researchers, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra contends.
Here in Colorado, Weiser announced he was probing Juul in August, as first reported by Colorado Public Radio.
“As many as 50% of high schoolers are engaging in vaping, and they think, ‘This doesn’t hurt you,’ ” Weiser said last week. “But there is evidence of people going from vaping to smoking. And there are some health harms that are still emerging as to what vaping does to your lungs.”
Austin Finan, Juul’s senior director of communications, said in a prepared statement that the company has halted television, print and digital product advertising and put an end to the sale of most flavored vaping products.
“We will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” he said in the statement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data in 2018 showing Colorado high schoolers vape, or use e-cigarette products, at twice the national average. State health surveys also found that only 50 percent of teens consider vaping risky.
A 2108 survey by the anti-drug non-profit Rise Above Colorado found that youth in Colorado are confused about vaping products and whether they contain nicotine. Of those youth surveyed who vape, 78 percent reported the vapes they use don’t contain nicotine, when virtually all vaping devices sold in convenience stores contain nicotine, usually at high doses, according to the survey.
Youth who vape or smoke tobacco also are 10 times more likely to misuse prescription drugs, that survey further found.
“This is a scary phenomenon,” Weiser said. “And we’ve seen this before. We saw the Joe Camel marketing to kids by Big Tobacco and how that made cigarettes normal.”
The lawsuit filed by California against Juul claims the company engaged in a “systematic” and “wildly successful” campaign to get teenagers to use its vaping products.
California’s complaint claims that Juul used exotic flavors, such as mango and brulee, to entice youth to vape. The company used young models playfully posing with the company’s vaping products.
Juul also marketed its vaping products heavily on Facebook and other social media favored by teens and in magazines popular with teens. The company did not age-restrict its website or its social media accounts, the lawsuit claims, and it sent marketing and advertising emails to individuals that failed its website age verification.
Weiser was one of 27 attorneys general to sign a letter sent to the federal Food and Drug Administration in February seeking to have the agency place new limits on flavored cartridge-style vaping products with menthol flavors. The letter points out that flavor was left untouched by new federal regulations announced in January.
The letter said the FDA left a loophole by not extending the new restrictions to menthol flavors. The attorneys general who signed the letter predict vaping manufacturers now will market menthol as a replacement for mint flavors, which fall under the new regulations.
“The FDA’s determination that menthol flavoring may contribute to adult smoking cessation appears to be based on public comments from industry participants with an ongoing interest in the sale of flavored e-cigarette products rather than research or its own pre-market review,” states the letter from the attorneys general.