SILVER SPRING – Montgomery County filed a lawsuit in federal court against JUUL, which manufacturers e-cigarettes, and Altria Group, a major financial backer of JUUL.
“With this lawsuit, we are making clear that we will not stand by while companies deliberately try to convince young people to become attracted and possibly addicted to vaping,” County Executive Marc Elrich said.
“We will not stand by and let companies or people mislead our children and citizens,” Elrich wrote.
The lawsuit, submitted on Oct. 11, recently was transferred to the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation pending in the Northern District of California, said John Markovs, deputy county attorney. He also helped author the suit along with the law firm of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP.
It is the court where all the cases across the country filed against JUUL Labs, Inc. and Altria Group will be handled, Markovs noted.
The 42-page lawsuit called the two defendants in violation of various laws: Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act, Montgomery County Consumer Protection Act and the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO).
According to the lawsuit, JUUL’s e-cigarettes and packaging create “to aesthetically appeal to kids” and are easily concealable by young people. The use of fruity flavors and pop-up parties where free samples create what the lawsuit termed a “nationwide epidemic.”
According to the Maryland Department of Health, this summer, five young people “developed severe lung illness after using e-cigarettes.”
Three Churchill High School students were hospitalized due to vaping.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maryland Department of Health all have issued health advisories concerning vaping associated with lung injuries.
In the lawsuit, the county pointed out that Altria Group, which has a 35-percent stake in JUUL and is the parent company for Philip Morris USA, used some of the same methods to sell cigarettes that it now employs with e-cigarettes.
“Unsurprisingly, JUUL’s reliance on kid-friendly flavors achieved the same success in attracting underage customers as Big Tobacco did. Indeed, 81.5 percent of young e-cigarette users said they used e-cigarettes ‘because they come in flavors I like,’” it stated in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also noted that JUUL did a great deal of advertising in such social media as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where young people often go.
“The current epidemic of underage nicotine addiction that JUUL created is no accident,” the lawsuit stated.
During the past decade, “youth smoking rates have dramatically decreased … – from 28 percent in 2000 to 7.6 percent in 2017,” the lawsuit stated.
But with the emergence of vaping, “JUUL has managed to reverse the success of the prior anti-smoking efforts. Indeed, a 2016 report from the U.S. Surgeon General cited a 900-percent increase in e-cigarette use by high school students from 2011 to 2015,” the lawsuit stated.
Council President Nancy Navarro spoke out in favor of the lawsuit.
“This lawsuit supports our ongoing efforts to protect our community members from the public health impacts associated with e-cigarette products and vaping,” she wrote in a press release.
She noted that the council is considering several pieces of legislation concerning e-cigarettes.
Council members Gabe Albornoz and Craig Rice introduced a bill that would prohibit manufacturers of e-cigarettes from distributing them to retail stores within a half-mile of a middle or high school.
Councilmembers Tom Hucker and Albornoz introduced a bill that would prohibit the distribution of any tobacco product, a coupon redeemable for a tobacco product, cigarette rolling paper or electronic cigarette to anyone under the age of 21.
That bill also would prohibit anyone under 21 years from using or possessing a tobacco product or electronic cigarette.
A third bill, introduced by Hans Riemer and Albornoz, would prohibit electronic smoking device manufacturers from distributing flavored electronic cigarettes to retail stores within a mile of any middle or high school, library, park, playground or recreational facility in the county.
According to the lawsuit, because the council continues to spend time and money working on ways to stop young people from using e-cigarettes, JUUL and Altria should be made to pay for the harm they have caused.
The county “seeks recovery of the amounts by which defendants were enriched as a result of their inequitable conduct,” the lawsuit stated.
Winning this lawsuit will enable the county to obtain money “to use going forward to abate the nuisance,” Elrich noted in his press release.