Claiming that Pitkin County “has been hit hard by the youth vaping epidemic,” a federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges Juul Labs and other makers of electronic cigarettes and tobacco vaporizers have deliberately marketed their products to minors in the same manner Big Tobacco once did.
The Pitkin County government is using the same law firm — Phoenix-based Keller Rohrback LLP — that is suing Juul on behalf of other Colorado local governments including the city of Denver and Boulder County.
The lawsuits come as Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is investigating the company for targeting youth through marketing and advertising. And last week, a group of 39 state attorneys general announced they were investigating Juul Labs for its marketing practices; Colorado has not joined that effort as of yet.
Pitkin County raised the purchase price for tobacco from 18 to 21 in January, though it was largely symbolic after the nationwide minimum age of 21 took hold Dec. 20, after President Donald Trump signed a $1.4 trillion budget bill that amended the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
Vaping rates in Colorado’s resort region that also includes Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin and Summit counties “continue to climb,” the suit said, evidenced by a surge among high school students from 20% in 2013 to 54% in 2017. As well, Colorado has the highest rate of youth vaping in the nation, the suit said.
Pitkin County’s lawsuit says Juul Labs is partly responsible for what it calls a high level of vaping among Pitkin County’s youth.
“These numbers are self-reported, and many public health officials think they likely underestimate the actual prevalence of youth vaping,” the suit said, noting that the “number of students vaping in plaintiff’s community is even higher. In plaintiff’s Aspen School District, almost 60% of high school students have tried vaping nicotine and 45% of these students used e-cigarettes in the last 30 days.”
Kids have become hooked on the product and are remorseful for starting, the suit said, noting that students as young as fifth-graders in Pitkin County reported having tried vaping.
“Pitkin County youth have also self-reported to school officials that they quickly became addicted after first trying vaping and wished they had never tried it,” the suit said.
Youth have been allured to the products through Juul’s marketing efforts on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network websites, as well as others, the suit contended.
“Middle and high schools throughout (Pitkin County’s) region report struggling to control and respond to the number of youth vaping,” the suit said. “Defendants’ products are discrete and easy to conceal, allowing students to vape in the bathroom stalls at school or even in the classroom. Plaintiff was told that some students do not feel comfortable going to the bathroom at school because there are so many students ‘juuling’ and vaping inside.”
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Denver. Other defendants include Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group, the owner of Marlboro and a multi-billion-dollar investor in Juul Labs; New Jersey e-cigarette maker Eonsmoke; and another Altria concern, NuMark, which has suspended production of vaporizers.
Juul, based in San Francisco, could not be reached for comment, but told the website coloradopolitics.com, which first reported Pitkin County’s litigation, “We will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society by working co-operatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.”