Colorado is suing e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, Inc., alleging the company intentionally marketed its products to youth and misrepresented them as a healthy alternative to cigarettes.
The lawsuit comes after a nearly yearlong investigation led by Attorney General Phil Weiser, who claims Juul violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act by targeting young smokers with attractive flavors and designs, as well as misleading information about the risks of vaping tobacco. The company pitched Juul as a smoking cessation product and reduced-risk tobacco product, according to the lawsuit.
“Addiction to e-cigarettes poses major health risks to Colorado youth,” Weiser said in a statement. “Juul must be held accountable for its reckless, deceptive, and unconscionable marketing that specifically targeted youth, downplayed its nicotine content and the presence of dangerous chemicals, and deceptively claimed its products as a healthy alternative to cigarettes and as a smoking cessation device.”
Boulder County has already joined several national lawsuits against Juul, arguing that the company’s marketing targeted minors, leading to an increase teenage e-cigarette use while the company denied the possibility of harmful health impacts. The county has among the highest rates of teenage vaping in the state and country, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.
Boulder Valley School District officials in April said they were considering joining the same lawsuit.
Juul targeted “cool kids” who would want to vape their products through ads and social media campaigns, used ambassadors to give out free samples at convenience stores and leveraged influencers to reach kids and young adults, contributing to Colorado’s e-cigarette epidemic, the lawsuit said.
Flavors like fruit medley and cool mint also made the products more attractive to youth, as did the USB drive-like design of the smoking device, officials allege.
Other tactics made the products easily available to underage kids, the lawsuit said. For example, Juul’s age verification process and replacement policy was more relaxed than its competitors. The company allowed buyers to replace devices by submitting a serial number instead of sending in a purportedly broken one — a strategy that enabled more teens access to Juul e-cigarettes, alleges the lawsuit. An internal audit in 2017 showed that a single customer purchased 60 devices and then used the serial numbers to get 300 replacements by way of device warranties, according to the lawsuit.
Officials allege Juul also used deceptive affiliate marketing, misrepresenting e-cigs as a way to ween people off traditional tobacco cigarettes despite the fact Juul’s e-juice pods contained some of the highest levels of nicotine in the industry.
To differentiate itself in the e-cig industry, the company developed a nicotine salt, which delivers “nicotine levels beyond what the public had ever experienced” without the harshness, the lawsuit states.
“Using a volume-based mg/ml standard of measurement, Juul’s Fruit Medley flavor contained a 58 mg/ml concentration of nicotine,” said the lawsuit. “By comparison, other commercially sold brands were as low as 3 mg/ml.”
The suit also alleges that Juul failed to disclose its products contained nicotine on social media and marketing materials and didn’t put a warning label on its packaging until the Federal Drug Administration required it to do so in mid-2018.
Juul allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to search engine optimization consultant, Quit Media, LLC, which operated a fake smoking cessation website under the name “Quit Smoking Community,” the statements reads. Officials said the website appeared to be operated by a nonprofit group focused on helping smokers, when in fact, it was a tool for Juul to engage in prohibited marketing.
Austin Finan, spokesman for Juul, said in a statement the company “will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, legislators, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.” Juul stopped the sale of its flavored products, aside from menthol, last November, Finan added.
Weiser and the Consumer Protection Division seek money for the damage caused to locals and called for Juul to halt its deceptive marketing practices.
In February, attorneys general from 39 states announced they were investigating Juul Labs for deceptive claims about nicotine in its products. And in October a Colorado teenager sued the vaping company in U.S. District Court, claiming the company’s electronic cigarettes caused him permanent injuries that will require lifelong medical treatment.
Outgoing governor John Hickenlooper made it a priority to combat youth vaping in late 2018, after a state study showed kids in Colorado were vaping tobacco at twice the national average. Concerns were compounded the following year, when a vaping-related lung illness swept the country. Though most cases were attributable to black market marijuana vapes, cities like Aspen banned the sale of all flavored nicotine products, including menthol.
In September, Denver moved the legal age for buying tobacco products to 21. Just three months later, the federal government increased the legal buying age to 21 years old nationwide.
Boulder city officials took a slew of steps to curtail vaping in 2019, including banning the sale of flavored vaporized products and raising the age to buy tobacco and nicotine products from 18 to 21 years old. Boulder voters also approved a 40% sales tax measure on vaping products in November.
Camera staff writer Katie Langford contributed to this report.