Picture: 123RF/ARTHUR HIDDEN
Picture: 123RF/ARTHUR HIDDEN

Los Angeles — On Monday, the state of California sued e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, alleging the San Francisco company engaged in a “systematic” and “wildly successful” campaign to attract teenagers to its nicotine devices.

The lawsuit draws on internal correspondence and other evidence, asserting the company did little to prevent sales to underage customers. It also claims that Juul used a “flawed” age-verification process for online sales.

Filed in California state court in Alameda County, the lawsuit also cites passages from a recent Reuters investigation that documented how Juul disregarded evidence soon after its launch in 2015 that teenagers were attracted to the product. The story documented how Juul rarely mentioned nicotine in early consumer marketing, while pitching retailers on Juul’s unique addictive power.

Juul spokesperson Austin Finan said the company has not yet reviewed the complaint. “We remain focused on resetting the vapour category in the US and earning the trust of society by working co-operatively with attorneys-general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” he said in a statement.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages based on violations of state laws governing false advertising and unfair competition, among other things.

Other lawsuits brought so far on behalf of teenage Juul users and other plaintiffs focus on the company’s early youth-orientated advertising and social media campaigns. The state of North Carolina filed a lawsuit against Juul earlier in 2019.

Juul, the US market leader in e-cigarettes, has come under intense scrutiny from regulators, lawmakers and attorneys-general over the surging popularity of its products among teenagers in recent years. More than 27% of US high-schoolers used an e-cigarette in the previous month, according to a federal youth tobacco survey released in September, up from 11.7% two years ago.

A recent study found that nearly 60% of high-schoolers and 54% of middle-schoolers who use nicotine vaping products said Juul was their usual brand.

The company stopped selling many of its most popular flavours in the US in recent months, including mint and mango, as research showed those flavours were highly popular among teenagers.

The lawsuit brought by California alleges that customers who failed Juul’s online age-verification process could create multiple accounts to circumvent the system or ask Juul customer service employees to adjust the address or name to try again.

Sales records in California, according to the suit, show the company sent thousands of Juul devices and pods to fictitious names including “Beer Can” and “Patricia Juul”, and to addresses such as “no signature needed, Palo Alto”.

The lawsuit quotes correspondence earlier in 2019 from a Juul senior developer, Frederic Boivin, agreeing with another employee that the company shouldn’t be allowed to edit customer information because it risked “huge compliance violations”. Referring to a specific case, he added: “For all we know, this is an underage person”, according to the suit.

Boivin went on to tell Eadon Jacobs, a director of digital product at Juul, that “you can edit everything”, according to the suit. Jacobs responded with one word: “Shit”, according to the complaint.

Boivin and Jacobs did not respond to requests for comment.

California attorney-general Xavier Becerra said on Monday that Juul “targeted underage Californians with its marketing and sales practices”, and is engaging in business practices that are “endangering lives, especially of our children”. 

Reuters