Minnesota has become the latest state to sue e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, alleging that its deceptive marketing unlawfully aimed at teens has wiped out a decade of gains in fighting youth tobacco use.
Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, joined at the Capitol by a dozen Minnesota teens, cast the lawsuit Wednesday as a sequel to the state’s landmark $6.5 billion settlement with the tobacco industry 20 years ago.
“There’s a new name for Big Tobacco: It’s Juul and it’s vaping. It’s that’s simple,” Walz said. “But my message to Juul if they’re listening today is you can hire your attorneys, you will have your day in court, but we will bring the righteous justice of the state of Minnesota down on Juul.”
Minnesota’s suit is the latest in a mounting stack of lawsuits, congressional investigations and regulatory efforts targeting San Francisco-based Juul, which has rapidly become the dominant e-cigarette manufacturer in the U.S.
The new lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, seeks to declare Juul responsible for “creating a public nuisance” in Minnesota and violating the state’s consumer protection laws.
Minnesota is also seeking an order permanently barring Juul from marketing to youths and forcing the company to fund clinical vaping cessation programs in Minnesota and a “corrective public education campaign” about the dangers of youth vaping.
Ellison said the state would also be seeking monetary relief “for the great harm and injury” Juul caused in Minnesota. Though he gave no dollar figure, Ellison said he would “not refute” the possibility that the damages and civil penalties could approach the size of the first major tobacco suit filed by Minnesota in 1994.
A spokesperson for Juul said Wednesday that while the company had not yet reviewed the suit, it is committed to working with public health officials and others “to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.”
In the past year, the company has stopped distributing its mint-, fruit- and candy-flavored Juul pods, suspended all U.S. advertising and shut down its social media accounts in response to a rise in youth vaping.
“Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers, and we do not intend to attract underage users,” the spokesperson said.
But Ellison maintained that the company had engaged in a campaign to deceive and mislead Minnesotans of all ages while knowingly profiting off young people.
“Twenty years ago, we led the nation in taking on Big Tobacco,” Ellison said. “Now Juul has stepped in to deceive consumers just like Big Tobacco did and has taken it to a whole new level. We’re not going to stand by while this company tries to deceive and addict a whole new generation of our youth.”
Walz and Minnesota DFL lawmakers also want to pass legislation that would ban flavored tobacco products in the state and raise the smoking age from 18 to 21.
State health officials and medical professionals blame the rise of vaping for reversing decadeslong drops in youth tobacco use. The Minnesota Department of Health reported that 2017 was the first year in nearly two decades to see an increase in tobacco use among high school students. Three-quarters of youths in eighth through 11th grades also reported that they did not believe there were any health risks associated with vaping.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Wednesday that the research convinced health officials that the state was in the midst of an epidemic.
Will Gitler, a Hopkins High School senior, said he became addicted to nicotine at age 13 and turned to vaping because he believed it was a safe alternative after repeatedly trying to quit smoking.
“It feels like I’ve been deceived, like the progress that I thought I was making wasn’t progress,” Gitler said. “Anyone who’s quit any tobacco product knows how incredibly difficult it is, and this was just a big backwards step for me.”
Dr. Anne Griffiths, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Minnesota, has treated young people for severe vaping-related lung injuries since the summer. She described her patients as “good, smart kids who really felt like they were doing something that was safe” — many of whom reported that being in intensive care was their only shot at getting off nicotine.
“This isn’t all about individual choice, we know that,” Griffiths said. “It’s about the environment. It’s about the context in which kids learn about these products — what’s normal, what’s not — [and] how easy it is to get access to these products.”
The vaping industry has come under fire this year amid a nationwide outbreak of vaping-associated lung injuries and deaths — including 125 reports of confirmed or probable illnesses. At least three vaping-related deaths have been reported in Minnesota.
Research performed in Minnesota pinpointed the cause of the outbreak to be vitamin E acetate in illicit THC vaping products.
Juul, which is partly owned by Altria Group, formerly Philip Morris Cos., has become the primary focus of Congress and public officials racing to respond to a rise in youth tobacco use, estimated to include about 5 million teens.
Juul, founded in 2015, was valued at $38 billion this year and grew its share of the e-cigarette market from one-quarter of all sales in 2017 to three-quarters this year.
The Federal Trade Commission is probing the company’s use of social-media influencers and other marketing techniques that may have been aimed at minors. The Food and Drug Administration is examining the high nicotine content of Juul’s refill pods in addition to its marketing practices. And the Department of Justice also has reportedly opened a criminal probe into Juul.
In May, North Carolina became the first state to take legal action against Juul, claiming that its advertising campaigns targeted people who weren’t old enough to smoke and that it downplayed the potency and danger of the nicotine in its products.
The company has since also been sued by attorneys general in New York and California, and on behalf of a 19-year-old in Illinois who said he became hooked on nicotine soon after he began vaping at 16.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor