The state of Minnesota is suing e-cigarette maker Juul, claiming the company created a public nuisance and violated several consumer protection laws in the way it marketed and sold its vaping products.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed the suit in Hennepin County Court on Wednesday, marking a pre-emptive strike on a rapidly increasing health problem in the state.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a student survey conducted by the Minnesota Health Department, released in October. The results showed 11 percent of eighth graders, 16 percent of ninth graders and 26 percent of 11th graders vaped in the 30 days prior to the survey, representing an increase between 50 and 100 percent from the previous year, depending on the grade.
Dr. Anne Griffiths, a pediatric pulmonology specialist at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, said she considered those numbers a conservative estimate, and that it’s likely more students were not willing to voluntarily admit to vaping.
“That’s a rapid and impressive rate of increase,” Griffiths told reporters. “That’s part of the crisis.”
As the vaping craze soared in schools across the nation and Minnesota, Juul became the target of lawsuits and mounting public pressure over its marketing.
At a congressional hearing in July 2019, the company said it only intended to provide a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes — a claim now disputed in lawsuits — and never meant to snare non-smokers. But in 2017, as reported by The New York Times, the evidence was growing that high school students were beginning to vape the flavored Juul pods.
In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration finally forced the company to include a nicotine warning label on its packaging. Later in the year, the big tobacco company Altria paid out $12.8 billion for a 35 percent stake in Juul.
Altria is the parent company of Phillip Morris and tobacco brands.
Minnesota’s current lawsuit targets many of those same aspects as evidence, claiming the company targeted school-aged kids with youth-oriented designs, flavors and marketing, and failed to disclose that Juul pods contain higher doses of nicotine than traditional cigarettes.
Among the charges the state levied against the company were consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, unlawful trade practices, false advertising, public nuisance, negligence and unjust enrichment.
Ellison said the lawsuit asks the court to order Juul to stop deceptive marketing in the state, fund a corrective public education campaign, fund clinical vaping cessation programs for youth and disclose its research, among other requests that include monetary relief, civil penalties and reimbursements to the state.
The attorney general noted that Juul once controlled only a quarter of the e-cigarette market as early 2015, but now has about 75 percent with a $38 billion value in 2019.
“This is a very serious urgent problem,” he said. “Rather than let something catastrophic happen, we decided to get ahead of it.”
Other states, including California, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, have filed or are considering filing suit against Juul. When asked about a class action suit, Ellison said Minnesota’s legal action pertains only to the state, but the state is in discussion with other governments.
Walz said the state is addressing the vaping issues through several avenues, including the courts and Legislature, which could see a Tobacco 21 state law brought to committees in next year’s session. The state Health Department is also preparing to roll out its own public education campaign on the dangers of vaping.
The governor added that his administration wants to get e-cigarettes out of the hands of kids while providing them the help beat addiction to nicotine, noting addiction is often an underlier to mental health issues.
“We need to get them the help they need,” Walz said. “These are not bad kids. These are things that have been hoisted upon them.”