North Carolina filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against e-cigarette company Juul, making it the first state to legally challenge the popular business.
Attorney General Josh Stein filed the suit against Juul Labs, Inc. in state court, alleging that the company violated North Carolina’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act by misrepresenting the dangers of nicotine in its products. Stein also alleges that Juul designed, marketed and sold its e-cigarettes in a way that attracts youth who are younger than the legal tobacco purchasing age.
“JUUL targeted young people as customers. As a result, vaping has become an epidemic among minors,” Stein said in a statement. “JUUL’s business practices are not only reckless, they’re illegal. And I intend to put a stop to them. We cannot allow another generation of young people to become addicted to nicotine.”
North Carolina’s lawsuit asks the court to require Juul to stop selling e-cigarettes to minors in North Carolina, limit the flavors sold, halt advertising and marketing that tend to appeal to minors, and delete customer data for consumers the company can’t confirm are at least 18. The attorney general also requests that the company face civil penalties and that it give up to the state profits from its “unfair and deceptive practices” in North Carolina.
Juul has argued that its vaping devices help smokers quit traditional cigarettes containing tobacco, the main ingredient associated with smoking’s health consequences. A study funded by Juul found that nearly half of adult smokers completely gave up traditional cigarettes after using the company’s products for at least three months.
The company says flavoring its products helps make it easier for smokers to make the switch. But Stein argued that Juul’s business strategy targets teenagers and the flavors only make it more appealing to them.
“Juul uses fruit and dessert-like flavors that entice children,” Stein said at a press conference. The company altered the chemical composition of its products to make them “smoother for young, first-time smokers’ throats,” he said.
Stein added that the vaping device makes it easier for teenagers to hide it because the company designed it to look like a flash drive. He also said that Juul “marketed its products on social media to appeal to kids.”
Within the past year, e-cigarette use increased among North Carolina high-schoolers by 78%, and among middle-schoolers by 48%, according to a study by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
A Juul spokesperson told HuffPost in a statement that the company has not yet seen the lawsuit, but “we share the attorney general’s concerns about youth vaping, which is why we have been cooperating with his office and why we have taken the most aggressive actions of anyone in the industry to combat youth usage.”
The spokesperson said Juul stopped selling non-tobacco and non-menthol-based flavored JUULpods to traditional retailers, advanced its online age-verification process and shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts while working to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others on the platforms.
But the advocacy group Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation said last month that Juul has more than 80 lobbyists fighting proposals in all 50 states to ban flavored e-cigarette pods, pushing legislation that denies local governments the right to adopt vaping controls, and trying to keep strict enforcement provisions out of bills that aim to discourage youth vaping.
North Carolina’s suit comes after Stein launched an investigation into the company last fall. While North Carolina is the first state to challenge Juul in court, several states have been fighting its products through legislation. California is on its way to becoming the first state to outlaw the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products, while more than a dozen states have enacted laws that raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. Juul said it also advocates for such legislation.
The FDA issued a new policy in March that restricted the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. The federal policy does not prevent state attorneys general from creating additional restrictions.