NEW YORK (AP) — New York has joined the ranks of states suing the nation’s biggest e-cigarette maker, Juul Labs Inc., saying the company used deceptive marketing practices to reel in young users.
Attorney General Letitia James announced the lawsuit Tuesday against San Francisco-based Juul Labs Inc. It alleges the company contributed to a youth vaping epidemic using misleading sales tactics on popular social media sites. The suit also alleges that Juul advertising touted e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine, as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
In a written statement, Juul Labs said it had yet to review the lawsuit.
“We remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” it said.
The company previously ended the U.S. advertising campaigns and shut down the social media accounts that are the subject of the lawsuit. It also stopped selling most flavors of its e-cigarettes after complaints that they were aimed at attracting young users, not just smokers looking for an alternative to cigarettes.
California sued the company on Monday and North Carolina in May. Illinois, Massachusetts and several other states are also investigating Juul, which James said represents 70% of the e-cigarette market.
In the latest government survey, one in four high school students reported using e-cigarettes the previous month, despite federal law banning sales to those under 18.
“Juul basically took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook,” James, New York state’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer, told a news conference at her Manhattan office.
The lawsuit was filed in state court in Manhattan. It requires Juul to stop targeting minors and pay fines for various alleged violations.
The suit comes as health officials have been investigating deaths and illnesses tied to some vaping products. Most who got sick said they vaped products containing THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana. Officials believe a thickening agent used in black-market THC vaping products appears to be a culprit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 42 deaths linked to vaping and 2,172 injuries, according to the federal agency’s latest count.
Juul’s products contain nicotine, not THC, but politicians have used the illnesses and deaths to hammer all e-cigarette makers.
James said the death of a 17-year-old boy in the Bronx, linked to vaping, spurred her to file the lawsuit.
“As a result of all of their advertising, a significant number of young people thought that e-cigarettes were safe,” James said.
She said other companies that produce e-cigarettes may be targeted in the future.
“All individuals who are responsible for the destruction that has been caused in the state of New York, you can be assured this office will pursue those individuals and not be limited to any one particular company,” James said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement saying that “it is undeniable that the vaping industry is using flavored e-cigarettes to get young people hooked on potentially dangerous and deadly products, and the predatory marketing practices used by these companies have no place in New York.”
This story has been updated to correct that the lawsuit does not allege that Juul’s marketing led directly to deaths, but instead contributed to a vaping epidemic using misleading tactics and touted e-cigarettes as a safer alternative.