Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Hennepin County District Court against Juul Labs, the nation’s leading maker of electronic cigarettes.
The anti-vaping lawsuit alleges the company illegally marketed flavored e-cigarettes to children and violated several consumer laws, including fraud.
“We want them to stop engaging in deceptive practices, stop targeting youth, and we want them to compensate people for the harms that have been caused,” Ellison said.
The lawsuit seeks to declare that Juul created a public health nuisance with its vaping products. Ellison wants the court to order the company to stop its marketing to kids and fund corrective public education to help people stop vaping.
Juul contends that its vaping products are a healthier alternative to smokers trying to quit combustible cigarettes.
Ellison said the lawsuit will challenge the company on that point.
“For them to claim that what they’re selling is safe or relatively safe, it’s certainly something that we don’t agree with, and we think we’ll be able to prove that.”
There have already been plenty of vaping lawsuits. States, school districts and consumers have sued Juul and other manufacturers. Some states have banned the products.
Juul announced last month that it was attempting to deter youth vaping by halting store sales of some flavors of e-cigarettes.
That’s not good enough, said Ellison.
“Without litigation, without some sort of a consent decree or court order or a verdict or something they could go back on that anytime they want,” he said. “Just because they said it doesn’t mean that’s going to stick.”
A spokesperson for Juul Labs said the company had not yet reviewed the complaint, but that it remains “focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.”
The spokesperson added, “Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users."
Concerns about vaping escalated in October when a survey of Minnesota students showed a dramatic increase in the use of e-cigarettes among young people. The survey also found a low recognition of the health effects.
Gov. Tim Walz said the survey results were alarming and required a response.
“We explored all of our options,” Walz said. “I don’t have the same executive authority the state of Minnesota’s vested in us to do what some states have done of just ban flavors, which I asked and wanted to do. Raise the age to 21, which I asked and was unable to do.”
Some state lawmakers have already outlined plans for the 2020 session to consider measures that address flavors and age.
Minnesota’s attorney general brought on two outside firms — including one that worked for the state in the 1990s tobacco lawsuit — to help with the case.
Contracts signed by the firms in October with Robins Kaplan LLP and Zimmerman Reed LLP make clear that final authority rests with the attorney general.
Much of the financial risk is on the firms. While they will be eligible for some travel and document expense reimbursements, they won’t get other fees unless money is recovered from Juul and co-defendants in a final judgment or a settlement. If the case lasts more than six months, which is likely, the firms would get 25 percent of the first $10 million and lower percentages on awards beyond that.
Walz said he understands that some adult smokers have benefited from vaping. But he wants the marketing to young people to stop.
“This is a situation that is going to require us on all fronts to push back,” he said. “We have the first generation that would have been tobacco-free – the numbers were down below 5 percent for smoking, and this came along and exploded.”
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