Denver Joins Suit Against E-Cigarette Giant JUUL, Saying It Marketed To Teens

January 31, 2020
Juul VapingJuul VapingSeth Wenig/AP
Juul is the largest U.S. seller of electronic cigarettes, controlling about 70 percent of the market. The San Francisco-based company rose to the top through viral marketing that promoted high-nicotine pods with dessert and fruit flavors.

Colorado’s largest city is joining litigation against e-cigarette giant JUUL over its marketing.  The suit contends JUUL’s marketing has played a driving role in high teen vaping rates seen nationwide and in Colorado, which has the country’s highest youth rate.

In the city of Denver, one in five teens say they vape electronic cigarettes, according to Denver Public Health.

 “We're hoping to get the word out to our young people that vaping and e-cigarettes are not safe, they are not a healthy alternative, that there are serious health risks,” said city attorney Kristin Bronson in an interview.  “They really need to stay away from these products.”

Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, is skeptical about the growing number of lawsuits being filed against the company. "JUUL absolutely made mistakes in their earliest days, but from reading the complaints filed in many of these lawsuits, the lawsuits appear to be frivolous and won't survive very far into the litigation process," he said.

Bronson said she briefed Mayor Michael Hancock on the litigation and he signed a formal letter to file a lawsuit on behalf of the city against the company. “JUUL’s initial marketing was totally youth-oriented,” Bronson said, using images and sweet flavors to lure teens.    

She noted a CDC report found a single JUUL pod contains as much highly addictive nicotine as a pack of cigarettes and that vape liquid can turn into aerosol.  She said the liquid can contain toxic particles and volatile organic compounds shown to be linked to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, seizures and other health concerns.  But the company didn’t tell the public, she said.

“Their marketing practices were deceptive about the potency of these pods, and nicotine addiction and kids. So that is another basis for our lawsuit,” Bronson said.

Denver joins Boulder, Eagle and Pitkin counties in the litigation, which includes local governments in other states.  The four governments have joined what’s called multi-district litigation. They signed up with a Seattle firm, Keller Rohrback, which represents counties and school districts, including some in Washington state, that are suing JUUL.  King and Skagit counties, La Conner School District and Seattle Public schools have all recently sued JUUL.

According to papers filed in court, JUUL Labs' leaders carefully examined how big tobacco used sophisticated marketing to target teens and then used the same strategy.

JUUL didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.  But when other Colorado governments first joined the litigation, a spokesman said the company doesn't intend to attract underage users and is taking steps to combat underage use.

E-cigarettes are now the second most-tried substance among Colorado youth, after alcohol, according to Denver Public Health.  “We are unfortunately ground zero for this crisis,” said Bronson.

One legal expert estimates JUUL now faces at least 200 lawsuits, including many from local governments.

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