JUUL Labs Inc. violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act through its marketing of electronic cigarettes to children, and was responsible for creating the teen smoking epidemic in the state, according to allegations in a lawsuit introduced on Tuesday.
Attorney General Phil Weiser filed the complaint in Denver District Court, with details similar to recent claims made by local jurisdictions like Denver and Pitkin County against the leader in the vaping industry.
“Addiction to e-cigarettes poses major health risks to Colorado youth,” Weiser said. “JUUL must be held accountable for its reckless, deceptive and unconscionable marketing that specifically targeted youth, downplayed its nicotine content and the presence of dangerous chemicals, and deceptively claimed its products as a healthy alternative to cigarettes and as a smoking cessation device.”
Beginning in 2015, Weiser wrote, JUUL attempted to market its nicotine vaping paraphernalia as a product for “cool kids.” It sent “brand ambassadors” to over 60 events in Colorado. At one event in Littleton, JUUL reportedly estimated that the average age of attendees was 21 to 24. For a time, the company encouraged the use of #juulmoment as a hashtag on Instagram, a social media platform that nearly three-quarters of teens younger than 18 used.
“No company is more aware than JUUL that social media is still the number one avenue for marketing to youth,” the lawsuit alleges. “During the three and a half years that JUUL was active on social media (June 4, 2015 to November 13, 2018) over a quarter of a million posts appeared. In the eight months after JUUL stopped its social media postings, community posting doubled to over half a million.”
The lawsuit added, “The seeds sown by JUUL had grown as intended.”
A 2017 survey of approximately 56,000 middle- and high-school students in Colorado found that more than one-quarter were current users of e-cigarettes. Nearly half of respondents had tried vaping at least once. Only 7% were current cigarette smokers.
Two years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that 27.5% of high school students and 10.5% of middle school students used vaping products, with JUUL being the most common brand.
In a statement from the company, senior director of communications Austin Finan said that JUUL is working with attorneys general, legislators and public health officials to earn back their trust, and to focus on transitioning adult smokers away from combustible cigarettes.
“As part of that process in the U.S., we are preparing comprehensive and scientifically rigorous Premarket Tobacco Product Applications, stopped the sale of flavored products other than Tobacco and Menthol in November of last year, halted our television, print and digital product advertising and support the Administration’s final flavor policy,” Finan wrote. “Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers. We will respond to the allegations in the complaint through the appropriate legal channels.”
The lawsuit quoted from the U.S. Surgeon General’s cautions that nicotine can affect impulse control, attention and learning in youth. Vape flavors, Weiser noted, were another tactic to draw in children, which JUUL discontinued beginning in 2018. Further, the company is accused of concealing the use of high-concentration nicotine salts, labeling its products instead as having “5% nicotine strength.”
“JUUL’s actions were both misleading and unconscionable in that it knew that these ultrahigh nicotine levels would increase the speed by which consumers, particularly young people, would become addicted to its product, and the strength of their addiction,” the lawsuit claimed.
Weiser reported that JUUL paid a company $700,000 for operating a "fake smoking cessation website" that pointed customers to JUUL to make purchases. The URL of the page now redirects to a vaping products catalog.
At a meeting with Denver high school students in February, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette heard from teenagers and school leaders that there was a misunderstanding among kids and parents about vape products being safer than traditional cigarettes. One student advocated for a greater understanding of the reasons why teens vape, rather than a punitive response.
“What needs to be targeted is the sole problem, which is why they start vaping in the first place,” said 10th grade student Trinity Wynn. “Most of the time, it’s either depression or anxiety which is caused by the stress of overall high school."
The state's lawsuit is the result of a yearlong investigation that also alleges JUUL acted irresponsibly through minimal age verifications and deceptive answers about its use of formaldehyde. The company, the attorney general argued, violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, which provides remedies for injuries arising from deceptive trade practices.
"JUUL created the youth vaping epidemic in Colorado and throughout the country," the lawsuit charged.