A Johnson County, Kansas, resident has filed a class action lawsuit claiming the country’s leading electronic cigarette maker, Juul Labs, fraudulently concealed the addictive nature of its vaping products and misrepresented their safety.
Isaac Gant says he began vaping as a senior in high school four years ago and now is addicted to nicotine, suffers from respiratory problems, bouts of anxiety, coughing fits and the need to take frequent breaks at work to satisfy his nicotine cravings.
“Juul marketed its products to teenagers and did not tell them that it contains nicotine,” said Jerry Schlichter, a St. Louis lawyer who represents Gant. “Now we have many young people who have become addicted to this product when they never were informed about its content at all.”
The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of all Kansas residents who bought or used products made by Juul and seeks unspecified damages for violations of the Kansas Consumer Protection Act, negligence, fraud and other counts.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas, accuses Juul of adopting the marketing strategies of tobacco companies by glamorizing vaping while downplaying its addictiveness and adverse health effects. It alleges that Juul specially formulated the liquids in its delivery systems to deliver more nicotine in higher concentrations in a way that would make it quicker and easier to consume.
In a statement, Juul said the lawsuit “largely copies and pastes unfounded allegations previously raised in other lawsuits which we have been actively contesting for over a year. This case is without merit and we will defend our mission throughout this process.”
The company said that it was “committed to eliminating combustible cigarettes” and that its product “has always been intended to be a viable alternative for the one billion current adult smokers in the world."
“We have never marketed to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products,” Juul said. “We have launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission.”
Gant’s lawsuit, however, says that Juul intentionally targets minors and that individuals who use its products are more than four times as likely to start smoking cigarettes as those who don’t.
The Food and Drug Administration this month issued a warning letter to Juul, accusing it of illegally marketing its vaping device as safer than traditional cigarettes. The agency threatened the company with civil penalties and seizure of its products if it didn’t stop.
More than 400 people nationwide have developed lung illnesses after using vaping products and at least seven people, including one in Kansas, have died. California health officials announced this week that a 40-year-old man had died over the weekend from complications related to using e-cigarettes.
The specific cause or causes of the illnesses and deaths are unknown, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people concerned about the health risks of vaping refrain from using vaping products and particularly vaping ingredients bought on the street. It also urges people to stop modifying the devices.
With a greater than 70% market share, Juul dominates the e-cigarette market. Last year, just three years after introducing its vaping products, it boasted more than $1 billion in revenue. In December, tobacco giant Altria acquired a 35 percent stake in Juul in a deal valued at $12.8 billion.
Gant’s class action lawsuit is at least the second to be filed by a Kansas City area resident against the company. Last month, the mother of a Clay County teenager sued Juul in federal court in Kansas City, alleging it deliberately targets teenagers while knowing of “significant health risks posed by nicotine use.”
Gant’s lawsuit accuses Juul of taking a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook, going so far as to create advertisements bearing an uncanny resemblance in theme, appearance and language to those once used to market cigarettes. The lawsuit juxtaposes pictures of old cigarette ads with pictures of Juul ads to illustrate their similarity.
The suit says that Juul, like the tobacco industry, tracks teenage smoking patterns and attitudes because it views teenagers as future customers.
“Having learned from its predecessors,” the suit states, “Juul Labs has been doing exactly the same thing, reaching millions of teenagers and children – on purpose and for the same reason as ‘Big Tobacco’ did – in the process.”
Schlichter’s law firm has filed several other lawsuits on behalf of young people who have developed health conditions allegedly related to vaping.
“This is a serious problem,” he said.
E-cigarettes, also known as vapes, e-hookahs, vape pens and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), are battery-powered devices that convert liquid nicotine into a vapor inhaled by the smoker. Because they don’t contain all of the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes, they’ve been marketed as a safer alternative to cigarettes and as a smoking cessation device.
They have rapidly become popular among teens and, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are now the most commonly used form of tobacco among young people in the United States.
“Their easy availability, alluring advertisements, various e-liquid flavors, and the belief that they're safer than cigarettes have helped make them appealing to this age group,” the institute says on its website.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.