The parents of a 15-year-old Florida girl who has suffered from seizures since becoming addicted to vaping are suing vape device maker JUUL Labs and cigarette manufacturer Altria, alleging the companies intentionally targeted minors like their daughter.
Erin and Jared NesSmith filed the proposed class action in the Middle District of Florida, accusing the companies of recruiting minors as “replacement smokers for financial gain,” according to Law 360.
JUUL, which captured nearly three-fourths of the vaping market with its youth-oriented ad campaigns and product design, recently formed a $38 billion partnership with Big Tobacco company Altria, whose Marlboro brand is the top-selling cigarette among teens. Altria is the parent company of Phillip Morris International Inc.
Altria paid $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in JUUL weeks after announcing it was discontinuing its own vaping products.
The NesSmiths say that JUUL is “mimicking Big Tobacco’s post-marketing practices” by preying on youth. By addicting individuals at an early age, the companies are building a solid lifelong consumer base to which they can hawk their nicotine products, they allege.
Part of this strategy involves keeping kids in the dark about the nicotine content and addictive nature of JUUL products, the lawsuit alleges. The plaintiffs claim that their daughter began “Juuling” when she 14, unaware that JUUL pods contained nicotine. She favors JUUL’s mango flavor vaping liquid and has experienced seizures throughout her yearlong use of the product.
According to Truth Initiative, many young vapers “do not know what is in the products they are using.” A recent study found that nearly 99% of all vaping products sold in convenience stores, supermarkets, and other venues contain nicotine unbeknownst to many minors. Researchers found that 60% of teens incorrectly reported that vape juice was mostly made of flavoring.
The NesSmiths’ lawsuit explains that JUUL’s new partnership will give JUUL access to Altria’s infrastructure, place JUUL products alongside Philip Morris’ Marlboro cigarettes in retail shops, and connect JUUL to Phillip Morris’ smoker database and powerful lobbyists.
An attorney for the plaintiffs told Law 360 that JUUL has managed to capture “a broad segment of the adolescent and teenage market by applying the same techniques historically used by cigarette makers … The companies tell regulators they are not marketing to that vulnerable age group while they simultaneously and knowingly created a massive increase in youth nicotine addiction.”
According to government officials, nearly 5 million middle and high school students in the U.S. used tobacco products in 2018 – an increase of 1.3 million over 2017. Vape devices, and JUUL in particular, account for that drastic surge. The CDC and FDA say early numbers show the vaping epidemic among U.S. adolescents continues to grow in 2019.
Earlier this month, the FDA announced it is investigating dozens of reports of seizures experienced by vapers, mostly adolescents. Researchers haven’t been able to identify a cause, but seizures are a known symptom of nicotine poisoning.
The plaintiffs argue that JUUL delivers about 30% more nicotine more per drag than conventional cigarettes. Researchers in a recent study found that JUUL sparked a “nicotine arms race” among vape product companies when it boosted the nicotine content in its pods to 5% over the standard 2% to 3% concentrations most other brands offered until then. The plaintiffs argue that JUUL continues to mislead consumers about the nicotine content in its pods.
The NesSmiths seek class-wide damages under federal racketeering laws in addition to damages related to fraud and deceptive trade practices.