New York State Attorney General Letitia James is suing Juul Labs Inc., alleging that the e-cig giant hooked countless young people on their devices through slick marketing tactics and chic brand ambassadors that had the effect of "glamorizing vaping."
It's the latest lawsuit to hit the $24 billion company in recent months, amid a nationwide backlash to vaping. This time around, the New York attorney general contends that Juul's deceptive marketing violated a number of state protections against false advertising, unreasonable interference into public health, and unfair business practices.
“There can be no doubt that Juul’s aggressive advertising has significantly contributed to the public health crisis that has left youth in New York and across the country addicted to its products,” James said in a statement on Tuesday.
The allegations date back to the marketing blitz around the company's debut in 2015, which did not adequately warn of Juul's nicotine content, but did include "flashy images of young people looking hip, cool, and sexy," according to the suit. Launch parties in New York City and the Hamptons featured young celebrities—including 17-year-old model Luka Sabat—who then spread the word to their young social media followers.
The company also recruited "brand ambassadors" to hand out product giveaways, "instructing them to wear dark skinny jeans and Converse sneakers or booties—styles known to be appealing to young people," per documents obtained by the AG's office.
The targeted marketing effort is believed to have helped fuel the explosion in teen vaping. One survey found that more than half of high school seniors in New York tried vaping in 2018—a threefold increase since 2014.
Adam Fine, the principal at East Hampton High School, said preventing Juul use among students had become his number one priority as an administrator. "If you ask me the day-to-day operations of what I'm dealing with, it's vaping Juul, vaping Juul, THC, vaping Juul," Fine told reporters following Tuesday's press conference.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with some New York City parents and students, have also raised the alarm about widespread vape use, calling for a ban on the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes and pods throughout the five boroughs.
The company recently announced that it will suspend the sale of mint, mango, fruit and cucumber pods, but will continue selling menthol. Some adult users say the flavors make it easier to quit smoking, as the tobacco pods remind them of cigarettes.
In a statement, the communication director for Juul (and former deputy press secretary to Mayor de Blasio) Austin Finan said the company had suspended all broadcast, print, and digital product advertising in the United States.
“While we have not yet reviewed the complaint, 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," he said.