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The North Hills School District on Monday became the latest in the Pittsburgh area to file a federal lawsuit against Juul, alleging the e-cigarette maker purposely targeted its products to young people, forcing the district to reallocate resources to battle what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has called an “epidemic.”
Nine other such complaints were filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania, and they join hundreds more across the country targeting the company that now claims 70% of the e-cigarette market. The nine suits filed in Pittsburgh recently were transferred to the federal court in the Northern District of California.
The North Hills School District complaint includes claims for public nuisance, negligence and racketeering. In addition to Juul Labs, it names as defendants Altria Group, which owns a 35% stake in Juul; and Philip Morris USA, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Altria, and the largest cigarette company in the United States.
The lawsuit contends that Juul had been in 90,000 U.S. retail outlets but, after Altria invested nearly $13 billion in Juul in December 2018, it allowed Juul to reach 230,000 outlets.
The lawsuit accuses Juul of specifically marketed its e-cigarette products to school-age minors, including the student body at North Hills, which has 4,500 students from kindergarten through 12th grade in seven schools.
“Across the United States, schools have had to divert resources, and administrators have had to go to extreme lengths to respond to the ever-growing number of students using Juuls on school grounds,” according to the filing.
The lawsuit alleges that Juul products have affected curriculum, class time, discipline and supervision.
The complaint contends that North Hills, like others districts across Pennsylvania, spent significant resources to combat the deceptive marketing used by Juul.
The lawsuit recounts in detail the explosive use of Juul products in the last several years, claiming that their use has largely reversed the drastic reduction in youth tobacco use achieved over the past decade.
The lawsuit alleges that, between 2011 and 2015, e-cigarette use among middle- and high-school students increased 900%; and between 2017 and 2018, e-cigarette use increased among high school students by 78%.
In 2018, the complaint said, 4.9 million middle- and high-school students used tobacco products, with 3.6 million using e-cigarettes.
That year, the lawsuit said, Juul generated $942 million in sales, with the entire industry at nearly $2 billion.
“Juul’s dominance of the e-cigarette market has been so rapid, and so complete, that the act of vaping is now referred to as ‘Juuling,’” the complaint said.
It accuses Juul, which resembles a small flash drive, of taking tactics and strategies used by Big Tobacco to market traditional cigarettes and adapted it for use in their products, including marketing flavors attractive to young people, such as strawberry brulee; apple cider; glacier mint and mardi gras.
The lawsuit cited a study that showed that teens are 16 times more likely to use a Juul than 25- to 34-year-olds.
The complaint also alleges that Juul targeted its advertising and marketing at young people, relying heavily on social media.
“In fact, many of Juul’s ads are nearly identical to old cigarette ads that were designed to get teens to smoke. Like its Big Tobacco predecessors, the focus of Juul’s initial marketing was on colorful ad campaigns using eye-catching designs and youth-oriented imagery with themes of being cool, carefree, stylish, attractive, sexy, and popular—unusual themes and images if one’s objective is to promote an adult’s only smoking cessation device,” the complaint said. “The Juul device even has features reminiscent of youth-oriented tech culture and gaming, like ‘secret’ features users can unlock, such as making the indicator light flash rainbow colors in ‘party mode.’”
Paula Reed Ward is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paula by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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