California Sues E-cigarette Maker Juul, Alleges it Deliberately Marketed to Teens

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An illustration shows a man exhaling smoke from an electronic cigarette in Washington, DC on Oct. 2, 2018.  (Photo by EVA HAMBACH / AFP)

California on Monday sued the nation’s biggest e-cigarette maker, alleging that Juul Labs deliberately marketed and sold its flavored nicotine products to teenagers.

The lawsuit from California’s attorney general is the latest legal action against Juul, the multi-billion dollar vaping startup that has been widely blamed for helping spark the teen vaping craze.

California is the second state to sue the company, following a North Carolina lawsuit in May. Illinois, Massachusetts and several other states are also investigating the company.

A Juul spokesman said the company’s intended customers are adult smokers and it was expanding its commitment to develop new technology to reduce youth use. “We do not intend to attract underage users,” he said in a statement.

Under intense pressure, the company has suspended its U.S. advertising and halted sales of all but two of its flavors — menthol and tobacco.

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The company also shuttered its social media accounts, tightened age verification for online sales and replaced its CEO.

San Francisco-based Juul is the best-selling e-cigarette brand in the U.S., controlling roughly two-thirds of the retail market.

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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argues that Juul’s past marketing efforts online and in major U.S. cities used bright colors and youthful models to attract underage users. Federal law bans sales to those under 18.

California officials said they are seeking money to help pay for anti-vaping advertisements.

“Juul ran big tobacco’s playbook and the results were predictable — millions of teens and young Americans now use their product,” Becerra said at a press conference in Sacramento to announce the lawsuit. “In California, we will not allow kids to be lured in by deceptive practices.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Juul previously:
— failed to adequately verify customers’ ages and identities on its website,
— shipped products to users who gave fake names, such as “Beer Can,” and
— distributed free products at concerts and festivals that did not include a mandatory warning label.

Los Angeles County also joined the state's lawsuit. LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey said they want Juul to "pay for the prevention of underage tobacco use, and the cost of treating underage addiction in affected communities."

The lawsuit came as White House officials said President Donald Trump is backing away from a plan to remove most vaping flavors from the market. The officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said Trump is concerned the flavor ban could alienate voters he needs to win re-election.

“We’re not going to wait for the federal government,” Becerra said.

Underage vaping has reached what health officials call epidemic levels. In the latest government survey, 1 in 4 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month.

E-cigarettes typically heat a solution that contains nicotine, which makes cigarettes and e-cigarettes addictive.

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KQED News' Holly McDede contributed to this report. The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.