King County sues JUUL over drastic rise in youth vaping

KING COUNTY, Wash. -- King County has filed a class-action lawsuit against major e-cigarette maker JUUL Labs over the drastic increase in youth nicotine use caused by vaping.

The lawsuit claims the "incredible progress" to reduce and eliminate youth tobacco use has been largely reversed because of e-cigarettes and vaping. JUUL, which has over 70% of the e-cigarette market, is being targeted because of allegations the company went after teens in marketing campaigns.

The statistics on teen vaping in King County are consistent with national numbers, according to the lawsuit, with one in every four high schoolers in King County reporting vaping in the last 30 days.

Scott Neal, the county’s Tobacco Prevention Program manager, said young people are attracted to JUUL products because of the design of the pod and how easy to conceal.

“As well as the flavors that are involved in it and the high levels of nicotine. And the marketing and sophistic tactics that they’ve used to target youth specifically,” said Neal.

Neal and members of the program study surveys of teen vaping across the state. He said one in four high schoolers in King County said they vaped win the last 30 days. He explained the number of 10th graders vaping increased 82 percent from 2016 to 2018. Neal also mentioned 25 percent of 12th graders in the county reported using vaping products.

“JUUL and pod-based units like JUUL are the single most attractive devices for kids. And those are the ones that are the most dangerous the levels of nicotine in those products are the highest,” said Neal. “We have such a high number of youth using these products. And these products are not safe. They are not harmless, they do come with risk.”

In July, a congressional committee investigation found that JUUL “deployed a sophisticated program to enter schools and convey its messaging directly to teenage children."

In one case, Juul paid $134,000 to sponsor a five-week “holistic health education” summer camp in Baltimore that “recruited from grades 3 through 12.”

The company shut down all print, broadcast and digital advertising in late September, also replacing its CEO with a senior executive from Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes.

Altria is also named in the lawsuit because of its $12.8 billion investment in JUUL, which gave it a 35 percent stake in the company.

Neal said the biggest risk at hand in the county was the number of kids now addicted to nicotine.

“These kids are using these products in ways that they would never have used traditional cigarettes,” said Neal. “They’re using sometimes one pod which is an entire pack of cigarettes of nicotine.

They’re actually sometimes using two and three pods a day. If we would have seen kids smoking two and three packs a day we would be very concerned.”

Neal said the program collaborates with schools and community partners to provide outreach for youth and their families. However, he said what the county really needed was a comprehensive effort to address the new epidemic. Neal said epidemic required more resources to respond.

On page 66 of the filing, the lawsuit stated, “Fully addressing the harms to King County and counties across the nation that were caused by Defendants’ conduct will require a comprehensive approach, one that includes addiction counselors trained in youth vaping, prevention education that includes information about the health consequences of JUUL use on adolescents’ bodies and minds, developing refusal skills, and addiction treatment options. Without the resources to fund these measures, King County and others similarly situated will continue to be harmed by the ongoing consequences of Defendants’ conduct.”

King County isn't the only local government agency to file a lawsuit against JUUL.

Last week, the La Conner School District in Skagit County joined a handful of other school districts across the country in a lawsuit against JUUL.

The school district claims that JUUL targeted teens "in an illegal manner."

"We are tired of companies targeting our youth," the school district said. "We are weary of predatory marketing tactics that seek to steal health and money from our most vulnerable citizens all in the name of a profit. And we are exhausted from shifting limited resources away from the classroom and into unfunded supports and interventions to help our children recover from harm we didn't cause."

The King County class action lawsuit is asking a judge to rule that JUUL is liable for the teen vaping epidemic and also make JUUL pay for prevention education and addiction treatment.

JUUL has released the following statement in response to King County's lawsuit:

"We never designed our marketing to appeal to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products as they exist to help adult smokers find an alternative to combustible cigarettes. We need to urgently address underage use of vapor products and earn the trust of regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders. That is why we are focusing on taking aggressive actions to reduce youth usage of our products, working through the FDA's PMTA process and supporting and complying with FDA’s final guidance on flavored products once effective.”

King County has reported two vaping-related severe lung illnesses amid a national outbreak that has sickened more than 1,300 and killed more than two dozen people. Researchers still don't know what's causing the illness, but Washington and several other states have banned flavored vaping products in response.