OLYMPIA – The nation’s largest producer of e-cigarettes has illegally targeted kids, the state claims in a major consumer protection lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced what he called a significant case designed to “send a message” the state will protect its youth. It alleges JUUL has intentionally targeted underage consumers with special flavors, deceived them about the nicotine content in its products and at one point didn’t have the proper license to do business in the state.
“We expect this to be, for a case of this magnitude, a long, hard fight,” Ferguson said during a news conference to announce the lawsuit being filed in King County Superior Court.
While the suit does not list a possible penalty, the state’s Consumer Protection Act allows for a fine of up to $2,000 per violation, and Ferguson said they will attempt to prove the company committed thousands of violations.
Austin Finan, a spokesman for JUUL, said the company would respond to allegations in the lawsuit “through the appropriate legal channels” but defended its efforts to fight underage use while seeking to get adult smokers away from regular cigarettes. It has reduced the number of products and ended television, print and digital product advertising, he said.
It also has submitted information to the federal Food and Drug Administration with “comprehensive scientific evidence to support the harm reduction potential of its products and data-driven measures to address underage use,” Finan said in an email.
Decades ago, Washington led a coalition of states in a successful legal battle with the tobacco companies over cigarettes that resulted in a settlement worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This time, Washington is “going its own way” after weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a multi-state approach. One of those disadvantages, Ferguson said, was the group could only be as aggressive as its least aggressive member.
A group of about 35 states has launched a joint investigation into JUUL, but Washington is not part of that effort, he said. Other states have filed individual lawsuits against the company.
Surveys show that as many as one out of five high school and middle school students in Washington use e-cigarettes or “vape,” said Annie Tegen, of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
“This is something that kids can easily hide,” she said.
Many of those youngsters did not know the products they were using contained nicotine, and JUUL e-cigarettes have a higher concentration of the addictive substance than some competitors, she said.
“They thought they were using a harmless product … completely unaware of how dangerous it is,” Tegen said. “If their products are for sale in sweet and fruity flavors, kids are going to buy them. There’s really no reason that gummy bear vape products need to be on the market.”
The prevalence of teen vaping is one of the reasons the Legislature voted in 2019 to raise the age of purchasing tobacco and e-cigarette products to 21 from 18, Ferguson said. Lawmakers had debated but not passed a higher age limit for years, but testimony from teens about peer pressure to use and buy vape products got the legislation “over the line,” he said.
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