In latest e-cig attack, Montgomery County sues JUUL

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Montgomery County says JUUL Labs – with fruity-flavored, easily concealable nicotine cartridges – has caused a severe public nuisance that local governments have few resources to address.

The county sued JUUL in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt late last week, claiming violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, Montgomery County Consumer Protection Act, and alleging negligence and unjust enrichment.

The lawsuit claims that the company designed JUUL e-cigarettes and their packaging to appeal to kids and can be easily concealed among their schoolwork and electronics.

While making billions of dollars in profit, the JUUL products ensnared “a new generation of the nation’s youth in addiction” and required counties and municipalities across the country to devote money to public health campaigns and policing to address the increases in e-cigarette use, the lawsuit alleges.

Montgomery County has spent money on tobacco control to target vaping specifically; on policing underage sales; and on an anti-vaping advertising campaign with Montgomery County Public Schools. The county needs more money to “truly address and end the vaping epidemic,” the lawsuit claims, invoking the massive $206 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998.

“By picking up where Big Tobacco left off and applying the same techniques that allowed Big Tobacco to ensnare America’s youth in nicotine addiction, JUUL has managed to reverse the success of the prior antismoking efforts,” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, a 2016 report from the U.S. Surgeon General cited a 900% increase in e-cigarette use by high school students from 2011 to 2015, and the 2016 National Youth Tobacco Survey noted that 1.7 million high school students said they had used e-cigarettes in the previous 30 days.”

JUUL did not respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit Monday.

In September 2018, the Food and Drug Administration declared that teenage use of e-cigarettes had reached “an epidemic proportion” and required manufacturers to make changes to keep their devices away from minors.

In November of that year, JUUL agreed to stop selling fruit- and dessert-flavored JUUL pods at retail stores and agreed to require additional age verification measures for online sales of the flavors. The company also removed itself from social media sites.

The lawsuit also claims violations of federal racketeering laws by JUUL and Altria, the parent company of Marlboro cigarettes, which owns a 35 percent stake in JUUL.

The lawsuit alleges that Altria had also sought to enter the e-cigarette market, but in late 2018 wrote to the FDA with concerns about youth access to e-vapor products and removed its own fruity flavors from the market. Two months later, the company bought its stake in JUUL for $12.8 billion.

Other unnamed members of the racketeering enterprise could include marketing agencies, social media influencers, and JUUL representatives who gave presentations about the product’s safety at schools, according to the complaint.

E-cigarette use has sparked concern among Montgomery County Council members. Three separate pieces of legislation have been introduced in the last month to address e-cigarettes:

  • bill from Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz (D) and Craig Rice (D) that would prohibit vape shops within a half-mile of middle and high schools in the county. The bill, officials say, would require 19 of the 22 vape shops operating in the county to move locations or close within two years.
  • bill from Albornoz and Councilmember Tom Hucker (D) to prohibit distribution and possession of tobacco products including e-cigarettes by people younger than 21, giving Montgomery County Police more authority to crack down on underage sales.
  • bill from Councilmembers Hans Riemer (D) and Albornoz to prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarette products within a mile of county schools.

Public hearings for the measures are scheduled for Nov. 5.

Montgomery County has been on the forefront of e-cigarette legislation before. In 2015, the county was one of the first in the nation to tax e-cigarettes in the same way as conventional cigarettes and earlier that year, the council prohibited the use of e-cigarettes in all places where traditional tobacco smoking is banned.

With a surge of vape-related lung illnesses in recent months, several states have temporarily or permanently banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, including Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, Montana, Oregon, and Washington.

A bill to ban all flavored tobacco products in Maryland will be introduced next legislative session.

In court, Montgomery County is seeking certification of a nationwide class of plaintiffs that would include all counties or municipalities in the United States that have expended resources to address, or whose property has been affected by, underage use of JUUL products.

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