King County sues e-cigarette maker JUUL over rise in youth vaping

SEATTLE -- Officials in King County have filed a class-action lawsuit against e-cigarette giant JUUL Labs. In the lawsuit, county officials accused the company of marketing its products to young people.

The lawsuit asked a judge to rule that JUUL Labs was liable for the teen vaping epidemic in King County. It also requested the company pay for prevention education and addiction treatment.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said the county decided to sue JUUL due to the drastic increase in youth nicotine use caused by vaping. In a written statement, Constantine said, “JUUL was well aware that their products would appeal to youth—driving an ever-increasing epidemic of nicotine addiction and severe lung illness. The taxpayers of King County must not be stuck with the tab for a public health crisis that has lined the pockets of JUUL and their shareholders.”

The lawsuit claimed the e-cigarette company used deceptive tactics to target youth in its marketing campaigns.

Ted Kwong, a spokesperson for JUUL Labs said in a written statement, “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.”

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 it is 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 within the last 30 days. He explained that 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.”

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 it requires 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.”

JUUL shut down all print, broadcast and digital advertising in late September.

The King County executive said there were five confirmed cases of severe lung disease associated with vaping. That number increased from two cases that were first reported on Sept. 20.