Simple. Smart. Intensely Satisfying.
The tag line appeared in a series of email blasts beneath a photo of a young woman with her arms crossed, loosely holding a Juul vaporizing device to her lips. The ad, playing to consumers’ intelligence, bears a striking resemblance to a 1942 advertisement for Parliament cigarettes, which prided itself on its “smarter,” safer filter that purported to shield smokers from harsh chemicals, according to a Stanford University study.
In the decades since former President Richard Nixon banned the airing of cigarette ads, manufacturers have shifted their focus to a more discreet product that’s legal to advertise and has come under fire for landing in the hands of children. One such underage consumer, a Crystal Lake teen who began using Juul products when she was 16, is among a group of consumers suing the company and its manufacturers in federal court.
“They are among the millions of youths who have been severely and negatively impacted by [the] defendants’ campaign to promote and sell a highly addictive product as if it was safe, fun and appropriate for recreational use by young people when it is nothing of the kind,” Chicago attorney Edward Wallace wrote in the lawsuit.
The suit, filed Sept. 20 in Chicago, names five underage Juul users as plaintiffs who, Wallace said, suffered serious health issues as a result of the company’s “misleading” and “negligent” marketing campaign aimed at young people. Juul Labs, Pax Labs and Altria Group are named as defendants. Specifically, Juul Labs is accused of using fruity- and dessert-flavored nicotine pods to target a younger demographic. The company also falsely advertised its products to minors as a “safe” alternative to traditional cigarettes, Wallace wrote.
Attempts to reach Wallace by phone were unsuccessful.
In an email Wednesday, Altria spokesman Steven Callahan called the allegations “meritless” and said Altria will seek to have the claims against it dismissed.
“Virtually all of the conduct alleged in the complaint occurred before we had any economic interest in Juul,” Callahan said. “Our minority stake in Juul provides no basis for liability against Altria.”
Juul originally operated under the name Pax Labs. In 2017, it was renamed Juul Labs, the lawsuit states. Altria Group owns the Marlboro cigarette brand and Philip Morris USA, the largest cigarette company in the U.S. On Dec. 20, 2018, Altria purchased a 35% stake in Juul in exchange for $12.8 billion, Wallace wrote.
Representatives from Juul Labs couldn’t be reached for comment.
The suit seeks recovery for injuries, restitution for the teens’ financial losses and a halt to the company’s marketing practices in the future. An amount wasn’t specified.
“[The] defendants capitalized on the same themes ‘Big Tobacco’ had used to appeal to youth decades before, including health, romance, sophistication and celebrity to market Juul Vaping Products to adolescents,” Wallace wrote.
The lawsuit’s allegations center around respiratory and behavioral changes in five Illinois teens who began using Juul products when they were younger than 18. Tiffany Teubert of Crystal Lake, Carter Bumbalough of Pekin, Sirenidy Perez of Carlinville, Kyle Ardelean of Lincolnwood and Kadin Bowling of Chicago each claim to have suffered a variety of health conditions including coughing, shortness of breath and depression, as well as nicotine addictions, as a result of Juul’s marketing tactics.
As the number of underage Juul users continued to climb, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to retailers that sold e-cigarette products to minors during a nationwide, undercover blitz of storefronts and online sellers.
The company has stressed that the device was created for adults who want to transition from regular cigarettes. Earlier this year, as criticism of the company mounted, it committed $30 million over the next three years for independent research, youth and parent education and community engagement. It also announced a new social media policy that features adult smokers – not models – and their stories of switching to Juul.
In August 2017, Juul banned online sales to anyone younger than 21, and in April 2018 announced support for Tobacco 21 laws, the company’s website shows.
The damage, however, already is done, Wallace wrote.
“In just one year, from 2017 to 2018, high school students’ use of e-cigarettes increased 78% (from 11.7% to 20.8%),” Wallace wrote, citing an FDA Youth Tobacco Survey. “Among middle school students, usage increased 48% during that time period (from 3.3% to 4.9%). In 2018, over 3.6 million youth used e-cigarettes.”
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.