By Vanessa Infanzon
In mid-May, Josh Stein became the first state attorney general to file a lawsuit against Juul Labs Inc. for directly aiming the marketing and selling of electronic cigarettes to people under the legal smoking age. The move came about the same time that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that e-cigarette usage among high school students increased by 80% from 2017-18 and the U.S. Surgeon General declared vaping an epidemic.
The federal authorities confirm what many parents of middle school and high school children know very well: Vaping is extremely popular among teenagers, just as generations before them found smoking combustible cigarettes so irresistible.
San Francisco-based Juul dominates the vaping industry with a 75% market share. It was founded in 2015 by former smokers Adam Bowen and James Monsees, Stanford-trained physics graduates who wanted to create a less-harmful alternative to traditional smokes. Industry giant Altria Group Inc. invested $12.8 billion in December for about 35% of the privately held company’s equity.
The problem is that Juul is promoting fruit- and dessert-flavored cartridges, called Juulpods, that mainly appeal to impressionable youth, Stein says. The pods are used in attractive and easy-to-hide USB-looking devices. Meanwhile, some public health experts believe the inhaled chemicals generated during vaping need more research to understand their impact.
“My lawyers and I will work tirelessly to win this lawsuit because Juul has targeted young people, including minors, and has misrepresented the potency of nicotine in its product,” Stein says. “These are violations of North Carolina law.”
The lawsuit requires Juul to stop marketing efforts targeted to youth and educate consumers about the addictive qualities of nicotine. While e-cigarettes don’t burn like traditional cigarettes, they include nicotine, a chemical found in tobacco leaves.
Juul says it is cooperating with Stein and taking “the most aggressive actions of anyone in the industry to combat youth usage,” according to a company statement. It favors restricting purchases by those younger than 21 and has stopped selling non-tobacco and non-menthol based flavored JuulPods to its traditional retailers. (They are still sold on its website.)The company also boosted its compliance program with more than 2,000 secret shopper visits per month and closed its Facebook account and other social media channels.
The vaping experience mimics what it feels like to take a puff from a combustible cigarette, providing that “cool” sensation that has attracted generations of teenagers. Messaging from the vaping industry also suggests it’s safer than traditional cigarettes. It’s a dubious notion: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says one cartridge, which equals about 200 puffs, contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of 20 regular cigarettes. Most smokers inhale a cigarette in six to eight puffs.
Stein’s activism conflicts with North Carolina’s traditional reverence for tobacco. The state’s 45-cent tax per cigarette pack is fifth-lowest in the nation. “Through much of the 20th century, tobacco growing and cigarette production were at the center of North Carolina political life,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill.
But over the last 20 years, Congress dismantled the federal tobacco program, manufacturers bought more tobacco from overseas growers and the surgeon general’s office labeled cigarettes as a cancer-causing product. The latter decisions led to the big tobacco companies paying billions of dollars to states to settle lawsuits alleging harm to public health.
Still, tobacco remains the No. 1 cash crop in North Carolina with much of the leaf exported to nations where smoking is more prevalent. No matter, Stein says his job is to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive practices.
He launched the Juul investigation last fall after two fathers told him their eighth-grade sons were addicted to the product. The teenagers’ grades and social lives suffered and both required medical attention, Stein says. “To this day, they each continue to struggle with their addiction to nicotine because of Juul.”
While San Francisco became the first city to ban sales of Juul in late June, Stein isn’t pushing that far. “If adults want to vape or Juul, that’s their right,” he says. “I’m not trying to put Juul out of business or take it out of the market.”
In mid-June, Juul received a 30-day extension to respond to the N.C. lawsuit. “I am gravely concerned about the epidemic of young people Juuling,” Stein says.