After a seven-month investigation of JUUL Labs, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has filed a lawsuit against the California-based e-cigarette company, claiming JUUL marketed its products to minors and downplayed the dangerous effects of nicotine.
Stein says JUUL is responsible for a teen vaping epidemic, and that its marketing practices violate North Carolina state law. The lawsuit was filed in a North Carolina state court. North Carolina is home to RJ Reynolds (now a subsidiary of British American Tobacco), the maker of Camel and Newport cigarettes. The state also produces more tobacco than any other.
“JUUL targeted young people as customers. As a result, vaping has become an epidemic among minors,” said Stein 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.”
It doesn’t take a seven-month investigation to reach the conclusions Stein has. Anyone who glances at a newspaper headline could have spouted the same claims. Of course, if the AG really did investigate, he would understand that the epidemic is mostly just a fad, and that the number of high school kids who have never smoked and use vapes regularly is tiny.
Stein is one of at least two state attorneys general investigating JUUL. Massachusetts AG Maura Healey announced her investigation last July, but hasn’t yet taken any action against the vape manufacturer. While Healey’s investigation continues, former Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley joined JUUL’s government relations team.
You can watch Stein’s press conference on Facebook if you’re so inclined. He shared the stage with a mother and her son who have made a career of traveling North Carolina and telling the ever-changing story of how the boy became morbidly addicted to JUUL, suffered grand mal seizures, and spent $150 a week on pods. It’s a disgusting example of a parent exploiting her troubled child, and Josh Stein was happy to help them reach a larger audience.
The AG is asking for civil penalties (money) for each violation of the North Carolina Unfair or Deceptive Trade Practices Act, disgorgement of JUUL’s profits from its unfair or deceptive acts and practices (more money), and for JUUL to reimburse the state’s costs of bringing suit (yet more money).
Of course, AG Stein is probably hoping for a settlement with JUUL, not a fight in open court. Like other poorly informed politicians who are using the teen vaping issue to score easy political points, Stein probably has visions of fame and glory from a second master settlement agreement, like the one that a previous generation of state attorneys created with the tobacco industry.
The difference is that those legal crusaders had decades of science showing that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer and other diseases, and proof that cigarette manufacturers covered up the truth. All the current crop of would-be heroes have is the addictiveness of nicotine — which JUUL and other vape companies have made no attempt to hide from the public.
According to Stein, “The health risks of nicotine exposure and vaping include dramatic changes in the brain, lung inflammation, COPD, respiratory disorders, addiction, long-term behavioral changes, and an increased likelihood of future drug misuse.”
While claims like those are easy to produce, proving them will be another matter. There is no scientific evidence to show actual harm to people who vape, and in fact a court proceeding could give JUUL the opportunity to bring in expert witnesses that might discourage other opportunistic politicians from making such claims in the future.
Since JUUL became the most well-known (and hated) vape brand in America, the company has become a target for all manner of lawsuits. Most of the legal actions revolve around the effects of nicotine — all of which were well known long before JUUL arrived in the market. In fact, suing JUUL has become a cottage industry among personal injury lawyers.
Since FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb left office with a flourish, suggesting that vaping may cause seizures (35 reports in 10 years!), the legal vultures who troll for victims have added seizures to their vaping lawsuit repertoire. And what better target than JUUL? After all, the company has two things that make lawyers salivate: a terrible public image and a lot of money.
Suing a vape company for selling nicotine may become the 21st century version of suing a restaurant for selling hot coffee, but there’s nothing funny about the reputational damage to the practice of vaping caused by an army of shysters searching for mythical seizures. And the attorney general of North Carolina isn’t much better than the rest.
How many smokers will shy away from trying a JUUL because of Stein’s grandstanding? Or is that the whole point?