Eagle County Joins Boulder In Lawsuit Against JUUL And Other Vaping Companies

Julio Cortez/AP Photo
Packages of Juul electronic cigarettes are seen on display at Urge, a smoke shop in Hoboken, N.J., in December 2018.

Commissioners in Eagle County authorized the county attorney to join litigation against e-cigarette giant JUUL and other related companies on Monday.

Boulder County became the first Colorado local government to take that step last week. Eagle County is now the second.

Eagle County will retain the prominent Seattle consumer protection firm Keller Rohrback, which is representing local governments in Washington state in suing JUUL.“I think it's great. I think it sends a powerful message,” said Mandy Ivanov, who specializes in tobacco policy and prevention for Eagle County. “For too long, the vape industry, e-cigarette manufacturers, have kind of slid under the radar.”

Ivanov said county public health officials “want to see these products regulated and the manufacturers held accountable” to the same standards traditional tobacco manufacturers have been.

In 2017, 57 percent of high school students in Eagle County reported ever vaping and nearly 40 percent said they'd vaped in the past month, according to Ivanov, citing national survey results. Those are some of the nation's highest teen vaping rates.

Eagle County voters recently approved a tax hike on tobacco products in the November election with the goal of curbing teen vape use.

JUUL spokesman Ted Kwong said via email that company officials had not yet reviewed the complaint.

“We remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society,” Kwong said. 

He added that they’d do that by “working cooperatively” with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials and other stakeholders “to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.”

In a complaint Keller Rohrback filed last month for Skagit County in Washington, attorneys accused JUUL of following in Big Tobacco’s footsteps by learning its lessons in aggressive marketing to hook kids on nicotine. And in the process, the complaint argued, the company fueled a meteoric rise in teen use. 

The complaint cited federal data that showed e-cigarette use spiked nationally by 78 percent among high school students and 48 percent among middle schoolers between 2017 and 2018. That time period corresponds with a sharp rise in JUUL’s sales. It’s now by far the most popular e-cigarette.

JUUL and its defenders have long argued its products are for adult users to quit smoking traditional cigarettes. But the Skagit County suit alleges JUUL developed a sophisticated ad campaign. It started with launch parties around the U.S. in 2015. 

“Thousands of young people” were given free “JUUL starter kits.” JUUL posted photos of young people “enthusiastically puffing” on JUULs across their social media channels, most prominently on Instagram.

That messaging has clearly percolated down to young people, Ivanov said. The percentage of the county’s middle schoolers who said they had ever used a vape product more than doubled to 23 percent between 2015 and 2017, she said. 

“I have seen very, very few adults with these products,” she said.. “It is our middle-schoolers actually, probably more so than even our high schoolers, who are carrying these products around.”