A Lehigh County family is suing e-cigarette maker Juul after their 13-year-old son became addicted to nicotine from vaping.
The family, whose names were withheld in the complaint to protect the child’s privacy, alleges that Juul designed its e-cigarettes to be addictive and marketed them in ways intended to appeal to youth, which led to their middle-school-age son’s addiction.
“This lawsuit is a message to Juul that they were irresponsible and they should be held accountable. They can’t make billions of dollars profiting off the backs of our kids, gambling with their health and safety, and get away with it,” said the family’s lawyer, Tracy A. Finken of Philadelphia firm Anapol Weiss, in an email.
In a statement, Juul denied targeting youths as customers for its e-cigarettes and fruit-flavored vaping pods.
“We need to urgently address underage use of vapor products and earn the trust of regulators, policymakers, and other stakeholders. That is why we are focusing on taking aggressive actions to reduce youth usage of our products, working through the FDA’s [pre-market tobacco product applications] process and supporting and complying with FDA’s final guidance on flavored products once effective,” said Ted Kwong, a spokesperson for Juul, in a statement.
Juul and other e-cigarette makers have faced public backlash amid rising vaping rates among teenagers and a surge of severe lung illnesses related to vaping that has sickened hundreds — primarily otherwise healthy young adults — and killed several.
Pennsylvania has reported one death and 61 confirmed and probable cases of vaping-related illness, and is investigating 66 other suspected cases. Deaths have also been reported in New Jersey and Delaware.
Federal investigators have yet to link all the cases to a single product or ingredient, though many people who have become sick reported vaping THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.
The mysterious illnesses are particularly troubling because vaping has become especially popular among teenagers and young adults, who are more vulnerable to addiction.
Teenagers are “uniquely susceptible to addiction” largely because the parts of their brains that are still developing are responsible for impulse control, responding to peer pressure, and understanding long-term consequences, said Kevin R.J. Schroth, a lawyer and associate professor of social and behavioral health sciences at Rutgers University’s Center for Tobacco Studies.
In addition, a single Juul pod contains as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes, yet surveys have found that young users don’t always know they are inhaling the highly addictive substance. The lawsuit also alleges that Juul’s vaping pods contain more nicotine than advertised.
E-cigarettes are driving a sharp increase in nicotine use among high school and middle school students while combustible cigarette smoking rates stagnate, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
A third of teens said they chose e-cigarettes because of the fruit and candy flavors available, while others said they opted for e-cigarettes because they believed they are less harmful than cigarettes, according to the National Youth Tobacco Study.
The Pennsylvania family’s lawsuit claims that vaping is pervasive at the boy’s school. “Students use Juul on the campus, in bathrooms, outside school, and even in class,” the lawsuit alleges.
He began vaping in December 2018, obtaining flavored vaping pods from other teenagers who purchased them at stores, online, and elsewhere, Finken said. Nine months later, he “cannot stop Juuling despite wanting to quit.”
The family’s lawsuit is unique because it takes aim at the product’s addictive nature rather than a negative health complication, such as lung disease, Schroth said.
“I’m not aware of a case where a court has found addiction itself constitutes damages, but this lawsuit could be an interesting test of that idea,” he said.
At the beginning of October, several school districts across the country sued Juul for endangering students and forcing schools to divert resources to prevent nicotine addiction, the New York Times reported.
The Pennsylvania family’s lawsuit was filed Oct. 16 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. It is being transferred to California, where a judge has been designated to hear cases brought by consumers against Juul in federal court. Finken said she expects the multidistrict litigation to handle hundreds, if not thousands, of Juul cases.
Meanwhile, state and federal regulators have taken steps to restrict access to e-cigarettes. President Donald Trump in September said the FDA would ban all flavored e-cigarettes, excluding tobacco-flavored ones.
New Jersey and Philadelphia lawmakers have proposed legislation to restrict e-cigarette sales to minors even further.
The legal age to purchase nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, is 21 in New Jersey and 18 in Pennsylvania.