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NY joins California in suing Juul over teen vaping

CBS News logo CBS News 11/19/2019 CBSNews

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New York state officials joined their counterparts in California and North Carolina in suing e-cigarette maker Juul, alleging the company created marketing campaigns that targeted youth and helped fuel teenage lung illness and — in some cases — vaping-related deaths. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the state's lawsuit Tuesday. State health officials said about 1 million New Yorkers use e-cigarettes regularly and 220,000 are under 18. James' office also noted the case of a 17-year-old Bronx boy who died from a vaping-related illness in October.

"There can be no doubt that Juul's aggressive advertising has significantly contributed to the public health crisis that has left youth in New York and across the country addicted to its products," James said in a statement. "By glamorizing vaping, while at the same time downplaying the nicotine found in vaping products, Juul is putting countless New Yorkers at risk." 

Juul Labs Inc. (JLI)  faces multiple state and federal investigations into whether its early marketing efforts helped spark the current vaping craze among underage users. The San Francisco-based company has repeatedly denied that it marketed to teens.

New York's lawsuit comes one day after California filed its complaint and comes six months after North Carolina filed suit. School districts in Kansas, Missouri, Washington and on Long Island have also filed lawsuits. 

California's lawsuit alleges, among other things, that Juul's website did not previously adequately verify customers' ages.

"JLI's campaign has been wildly successful, with millions of teens and young adults using their product," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote in court documents filed Monday. "While JLI's profits soared, users became addicted and their health was harmed. Some users took up cigarette smoking or became dual users of both cigarettes and electronic cigarettes."

Juul disputes such allegations. The company points out that it has halted its advertising and removed most of its flavors from the public.

Earlier this month, Juul announced it would stop selling its mint refill pods, which account for about 70% of the company's U.S. sales, in a step that could hurt profits. The move came after Juul had already stopped selling sweet and fruit-flavored pods, citing their appeal to youth users. 

Still, California officials said in their lawsuit that Juul had a marketing plan that described their target customer and the targeted customer had common characteristics of teenagers and young adults. The complaint alleges Juul uses nicotine salts in the pods to create an experience similar to smoking tobacco cigarettes.

"The short and long-term consequences of JLI's actions for young people, for public health, and for public resources, both at the state and local level, are devastating," Becerra said in court documents.  

At least 42 people have died from lung illnesses linked to vaping, according to the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Just like Big Tobacco, Juul developed bright, colorful ads and fruity, sweet-tasting flavors, such as mango, which attracted young consumers," James wrote in court documents. "To make them even more attractive to young consumers, Juul gave the flavors fun names such as Cool Cucumber, Crème Brulée, Fruit Medley and Cool Mint." 

In May, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein accused Juul of causing an "epidemic" among young people through "unfair and deceptive" marketing practices. Stein said the fruit and dessert-like flavors have enticed underage users to buy the product. 

Massachusetts Attorney General said in July the state has launched an investigation into Juul, as well as other online e-cigarette retailers, focused on their marketing efforts toward teenagers. 

The mounting litigation against Juul comes in the same week that President Donald Trump has reportedly backpedaled on his intentions to ban most flavored e-cigarettes.

Mr. Trump in September announced a proposed ban on e-cigarette flavors, saying he wanted parents to be aware of what a problem vaping has become among teens. He made the announcement in the presence of first lady Melania Trump, noting she does not believe e-cigarettes should be available to children.

But two White House and campaign officials told the Associated Press on Monday that Mr. Trump has since grown reluctant to move forward after becoming convinced that such a step could alienate voters he needs for re-election who would be financially or otherwise affected by such a ban.

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