Closeup of woman smoking electronic cigarette

Pitkin County joined Denver on Wednesday in filing a federal lawsuit against vaping company JUUL Labs and its owner, Altria Group, Inc., for their marketing to youth, which the county alleges was drawn directly from the tactics of tobacco companies from generations past.

In 2013, only 20% of teenagers had tried electronic cigarettes in the five-county region that includes Pitkin, but that increased to 54% by 2017. The lawsuit attributes much of the increase to JUUL, which captured more than three-quarters of the e-cigarette market by 2018.

The goal of JUUL founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees, the county wrote, was to “design a cigarette without the stigma and self-consciousness smokers experienced.” Bowen and Monsees allegedly “carefully studied the marketing strategies, advertisements, and product design of Big Tobacco.” Since the tobacco master settlement with state attorneys general, there have been prohibitions on cigarette manufacturers’ marketing activities. However, prior to the settlement, manufacturer Philip Morris found that “[t]he success of Marlboro Red during its most rapid growth period was because it became the brand of choice among teenagers who then stuck with it as they grew older.”

The lawsuit described JUUL’s “Vaporized” campaign of 2015, which featured “a vivid color scheme and models in their twenties” that would have appealed more so to “underage teens than mature adults.” Pitkin County alleged that JUUL’s ads were “nearly identical” to old tobacco industry promotions.

As part of the 2015 campaign, Pitkin County alleged that JUUL advertised on children’s websites, including those of the Nickelodeon Group, Cartoon Network, and an online gaming page. JUUL also hosted parties and “lounges,” where it gave away samples and encouraged young people to upload photos to social media. The company encouraged its distributors and retailers to engage with online “influencers” to promote the brand.

“The effect — and purpose — of [JUUL’s] Vaporized giveaways was to flood major cities with JUUL products that would hook thousands of new users, and to generate buzz for the brand among urban trendsetters,” the lawsuit alleged.

The use of flavors and devices designed to not look like traditional cigarettes were deemed further attempts to appeal to youth, and Pitkin County found that JUUL did not give warnings about nicotine content until it was “forced to do so in August 2018.”

JUUL and Altria Group did not respond to requests for comment. The lawsuit also named as a defendant the New Jersey-based Eonsmoke, LLC, which sells vape devices and flavor pods that are compatible with JUUL products. Eonsmoke also did not respond.

The activities of e-cigarette companies have recently caught the attention of Congress. In February, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette met with Denver teenagers who told her it was likely that far more than 28% of high school students — the national average — were vaping. 

At a House of Representatives hearing days later, K.C. Crosthwaite, the CEO of JUUL, acknowledged that “trust in our company and category has eroded.” Crosthwaite and other vaping leaders maintained that the companies’ goal was to transition adults away from traditional combustible cigarettes. Pitkin County’s lawsuit deemed this “harm reduction” strategy part of a cover-up, in which JUUL continued to keep key addictive products on the shelves for youth.

The national law firm Keller Rohrback filed the suit on behalf of Pitkin County, and the company is also representing Denver. The suit seeks to prevent JUUL Labs from continuing its youth-oriented marketing and to award damages, as well as to fund addiction treatment.

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